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How Brussels changed its rulebook over new Russian sanctions

As sanctioning Russia for its actions in Ukraine becomes more economically painful for the EU, the Commission appears to have amended its unveiling rulebook in a bid to preserve unity and ruffle fewer feathers.

EU ambassadors were given the finalised plans for the sixth round of sanctions by the Commission close to midnight on Tuesday in order to debate them on Wednesday while Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen outlined the proposed sanctions to MEPs during an address to the hemicycle in Strasbourg. 

The “choreography” – as Brussels likes to describe the arrangements surrounding the publication of momentous announcements was different from the fifth package.

Last time, Von der Leyen, joined by the bloc’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, pressed ahead with delivering details of sanctions to the parliament without first releasing them to ambassadors. These included wide-ranging implications for European economies, including a ban on Russian coal – the first time Russian energy was included in EU sanctions.

Member states were irked by the Commission’s public dispatch of deeply sensitive and consequential plans. This time around, there was far more interaction with countries, ahead of the sanctions becoming public knowledge.

As a result, Commission officials said they were “optimistic” member states would give their imprimatur on the permanent phasing out of Russian oil. Alas, it hasn’t been as planned, given the holdouts from Hungary and others but there’s no expectation that the package will ultimately be blocked.

Still, as the weekend nears, EU member states remain locked in talks on how to overcome the difficulties arising from the phasing out of Russian oil from the bloc.

This new round of measures has been in the making – in essence – since January – when the prospect of an invasion by Russia was regarded as a real and present threat. Yet in reality, “nobody ever thought it would come to this”, a senior Commission source told Euronews this week.

“I’ve followed Putin for years, twenty years ago we thought he was a moderniser we could work with. He seemed enthusiastic about Russia, and about the ambitions shared by young, educated Russians. Yet here we are, in the midst of a major Russian invasion of a European country,” they added. 

The “far-reaching” nature of this sanction package took EU ambassadors by surprise, several diplomats have said. “The phasing out of oil is a watershed moment and will need some serious investment in renewable energy, as well as buy-in from countries like Hungary and Slovakia which rely wholly on Russian oil – you have to have some sympathy for them,” one diplomat said.

Meanwhile, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban compared the sanctions proposals to an economic “atomic bomb”. Despite an updated offer to give Hungary and Slovakia until the end of 2024 to end its reliance on Russian oil, Budapest has initially been seeking a total dispensation. 

However, sources believe a landing zone is possible and Orban is “talking tough” to extract as much as possible – including more money from Brussels, in order to facilitate the passage of the sanctions.

“This is typical Orban, time and money heal all wounds,” a diplomat close to the talks stressed.

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