Slovakia and Hungary have said they will not support sanctions against Russian energy that the European Union is preparing over the war in Ukraine, saying they are too reliant on those supplies and there are no immediate alternatives.
EU commissioners are debating new proposals for sanctions, which could include a phased-in embargo on Russian oil. The 27 member countries are likely to start discussing them on Wednesday, but it could be several days before the measures take effect and it is not clear if oil would be among them or Slovakia and Hungary would receive exemptions.
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Slovak Economy Minister Richard Sulik said on Tuesday the country’s sole refiner, Slovnaft, cannot immediately switch from Russian crude to another kind of oil. Changing the technology would take several years, Sulik said.
“So, we will insist on the exemption, for sure,” Sulik told reporters.
Slovakia’s almost fully dependent on Russian oil it receives through the Soviet-era Druzhba pipeline. Hungary is also heavily reliant, though other major energy importers like Germany said it could cope if the EU banned Russian oil, with officials still noting “it is a heavy load to bear”.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said the country will not vote for any sanctions “that will make the transport of natural gas or oil from Russia to Hungary impossible”.
“The point is simple, that Hungary’s energy supply cannot be endangered because no one can expect us to allow the price of the war [in Ukraine] to be paid by Hungarians,” Szijjarto said, speaking Tuesday in Kazakhstan. “It is currently physically impossible for Hungary and its economy to function without Russian oil.”
Despite disagreement among EU members on new energy sanctions, European Council President Charles Michel pledged to “break the Russian war machine” by steering countries on the continent away from Russia’s natural gas supplies.
The bloc is racing to secure alternative supplies to Russian energy, placing priority on global liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports from countries that include major producers like Algeria, Qatar and the United States.
That includes LNG facilities being built in northern Greece, which Michel and the leaders of four Balkan countries toured on Tuesday.
“We are also sanctioning Russia to put financial, economic and political pressure on the Kremlin because our goal is simple: We must break the Russian war machine,” Michel said.
He met Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the leaders of Bulgaria, North Macedonia and non-NATO member Serbia at the Greek port of Alexandroupolis. An LNG import terminal near the port city is due to start operation next year.
LNG that arrives by ship is becoming increasingly important as EU countries look to move away from Russian supplies. Russia last week cut off natural gas to Bulgaria and Poland over a demand to guarantee payment in roubles, in an escalating dispute triggered by the invasion of Ukraine.
“This is why this new LNG terminal is so timely and so important. It’s a geopolitical investment and this is a geopolitical moment,” Michel said. “It reflects what we need to do more of, because it will provide security of supply to Greece, to Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Serbia and other countries in the region. And this is extremely important.”
Also at the meetings were Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, North Macedonian Premier Dimitar Kovachevski and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
“This is not just an energy project. It will change the energy map of Europe,” Petkov said. “The Balkans is a region of 65 million people, and we can do so much more.”
The LNG terminal is designed to process some 6 billion cubic metres of gas annually, boosting the non-Russian supply that reached the region in 2020 with the new Trans Adriatic Pipeline running from Azerbaijan to Italy.
A new interconnector pipeline, fully connecting the gas networks of Greece and Bulgaria is due to launch next month.