More clearly than ever before, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has shown that the long-standing concern voiced by so many experts may come true: Russia is ready to weaponize energy against Europe. So, it is vital to cut our dependence on Russian energy as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the results so far are not convincing at all.
Ursula von der Leyen’s European Commission walked into a crippling communication trap the other day. At first, when the sixth package of Russia sanctions were announced, the public may have thought Europe was united in its support for the ambitious plans. Such a unity would have been a huge step ahead for two reasons: first, the sixth package would be stricter than any earlier measures in the sense that it would completely ban oil import from Russia, and second, because it would mean that the sceptical member states are finally convinced.
As we saw last week however, it was not the case at all. In fact, the governments of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary are far from satisfied with the current plans since they are significantly dependent on Russian oil.
Unsurprisingly, the Budapest leaders were the loudest to protest the package, because maintaining good relations with Moscow is not just an economic but a political issue for them: over the recent years, Viktor Orbán’s propaganda media has almost completely converted a significant share of the Hungarian public to a pro-Moscow orientation, to the point where hardcore Fidesz voters vehemently support Russia.
As a result, Ursula von der Leyen’s Budapest visit achieved practically nothing other than letting Viktor Orbán’s media have a field day bashing the European Commission’s president, while the European Union suffered yet another huge loss of face against an authoritarian leader who should have long been sanctioned instead of being considered as a partner to negotiate with. Now the European Union seems to be forced to choose between two bad options: it either backs out of the sixth package or removes its crucial element, i.e., the oil ban.
Both options would mean an enormous loss of prestige as well as bowing to Moscow-controlled Viktor Orbán. Last but not least, it would send the world a message that Europe is not united.
Regardless of any global political games however, the threat posed by Russian oil dependence is very real, especially in Hungary. The situation only got worse over the past decade, largely due to the Hungarian government’s effective contribution. Looking at the matter objectively, the suspension of the oil ban may be a victory for Orbán, but it’s certainly not a victory for Hungary, because if nothing changes, the security of millions of Hungarian people will remain in the hands of a regime that can turn off the oil or gas pipelines as it pleases.
If the European Union truly means to be a global player, it must do its best to eliminate such risks even if it takes a few head-on clashes with certain authoritarian leaders.