September 26, 2023


It’s one thing to agree a set of sanctions, it’s another to successfully implement them. Especially when agreement in the European Council came with some uncomfortable compromises. So the task of getting member states to meet their commitments to Ukraine might take priority over having a further argument over another sanctions package, writes Political Editor Nick Powell.

If it took ingenuity to get an agreement on the EU’s sixth round of sanctions against Russia, it will take still more to make them work, given the ingenuity that Russia will try to show in frustrating them, with perhaps some help from individual member states, or at least by some of their businesses.

After the European Council concluded, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s reaction to the idea of a seventh sanctions package was to talk about having to spot circumventions and close loopholes undermining what had just been agreed.

The centrepiece is of course the ban on seaborne imports of Russian oil by the end of the year. The exemption for pipeline oil was a victory for Hungary’s Viktor Orban. In his view, Hungary is completely exempt from the oil embargo, so that if shipments by pipeline via Ukraine were to cease, he could import by another route.

That could involve some serious re-engineering, to reverse the flow of oil through a pipeline to the Adriatic coast and to adapt Hungary’s oil refineries to receive non-Russian oil, unless Viktor Orbàn thinks he can persuade Croatia to import Russian oil on his behalf.

Or he could try his luck with Germany and Poland, who have already said that they will voluntarily stop importing Russian oil by pipeline as well as by ship. European Council President Charles Michel marvelled at how far they had come, when at the previous meeting in Versailles not many people thought a ban on Russian oil could be achieved.

Viktor Orbàn might retort that was because it was agreed at Versailles not to go ahead without preparation. He blamed an ‘irresponsible’ European Commission for proposing sanctions without having the solutions to the problems that they would cause.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte came close to conceding that point, saying “I think what we can learn from the sixth package is that it’s best to first have discussion on technicalities and then to decide on the exact size and makeup of the whole sanctions package itself”.

On the fraught question of whether it’s even worth trying to get agreement on gas, which is Russia’s other major source of revenue from the EU, Ursula von der Leyen pointed out that what we’re now seeing is Russia starting to cut supplies as it’s way of putting pressure on the EU.

She said gas storage now stood at 41% of capacity, which was 5% up on a year ago. But the real answer was a major push towards using renewable energy, which benefited Europe’s independence and boosted employment, as well as being good for the planet.

What Russia was free to export was its wheat, despite its attempts to shift the blame for the growing global shortage. The EU would boost its own production and give financial aid to sub-Saharan Africa, where soaring prices threatened to cause famine. There would also be support for the UN’s efforts to secure a maritime corridor out of Odesa, where 22 million tonnes of Ukrainian wheat are stranded.

Rail shipments from Ukraine via the EU would also be increased but it was a more expensive and problematic mode of transport. Currently 200 thousand tonnes a month of Ukrainian wheat was getting through, normally it would be five million tonnes.


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