The EU’s sixth sanction package against Russia can finally come into force, a month after it was first proposed, after Russian Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Kirill was removed from the EU’s sanctions list on the demand of Hungary.
EU ambassadors agreed to drop the Russian religious leader from the list of people penalized after a threat of a veto by Budapest a day earlier. This would have meant the end to the whole sanctions package after an compromise on oil sanctions was reached earlier this week at the EU summit following weeks of haggling. The vote required unanimity from all 27 member states.
Patriarch Kirill, a long-time ally of Vladimir Putin, has been a key figure in rallying public support for the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, depicting it as a holy war. The sanctions would have led to freezing his assets abroad and a travel ban to EU countries.
Hungary's position on possible European Union sanctions against the head of the Russian Orthodox Church has long been well known, and nobody took issue with that stand at an EU summit earlier in the week, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s cabinet said in a statement on Thursday.
"For us, this was a matter of principle, because – similar to national interests – we insist on freedom of religion," argued Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto.
Hungary’s insistence on blocking the deal has met sharp criticism from top EU politicians. "Solidarity is not a one-way street," EC Vice-President Frans Timmermans said at a forum.
"Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban apparently believes he can deal with the EU and the member states as he pleases. He got a feeling that he can do whatever he wants, and they'll accept everything," he added.
EPP politician Michael Gahler hinted that Russia may have compromising material (kompromat) against the Hungarian premier, which is why he blocked sanctioning Patriarch Kirill. He called Orban's actions to veto a shame and an "embarrassment for freedom-loving Hungary" in a tweet.
Hungary’s radical rightwing government is celebrating the success of a long and arduous fight to extend the exemption for pipeline deliveries of Russian oil. EC President Ursula von der Leyen first announced plans for the latest round of sanctions on Russia with a focus on banning crude oil and refined products a month ago and hoped to seal an agreement by May 9, Victory Day.
"We fought a long battle, but it was worth it. It was worth standing up to the pressure, going against the mainstream that demanded we give up our national interests, and enduring the lying accusations of a number of European politicians and journalists", Szijjarto said.
The Orban government argued that the cut-off from pipeline delivery would threaten the country’s energy security and lead to a price shock. Since the agreement, it agreed with Croatia to boost supplies through the Adria pipeline if necessary.
"Croatia is ready to expand the capacity of the pipeline in the direction of Hungary and ensure appropriate delivery capacity for the long term, too," Szijjarto said after meeting with Croatian energy minister Davor Filipovic this week.
The Adria pipeline could be an alternative route for Hungary, which gets 65% of its oil from Russia.
A $200mn upgrade of the pipeline would be needed to expand its capacity from 10.8mn tonne to 13.2mn, Hungarian oil and gas giant MOL said, adding it would still fall short of its refining needs by some 1mn tonnes.