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Brussels

Consensus proving difficult as EU discusses fresh sanctions on Russia

Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said banning Russian oil was “very difficult for some member states”.

FINDING A CONSENSUS proved difficult as European Union foreign ministers held discussions on a sixth round of sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine today.

“Nothing is off the table, including sanctions on oil and gas,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, told reporters after the meeting. “But today, no decision was taken.”

At the same time, he pointed to an anticipated massive Russian assault on Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region, and said the main focus now needed to be on providing more military aid to Kyiv.

“Let’s have no illusions. If you cut gas today, it’s not going to stop the Russian army from waging war in the next couple of weeks,” he said.

The EU ministers approved adding another €500 million to the €1 billion it has already approved for financing and delivering weapons to the Ukrainian government, although the decision still needed to be ratified by the parliaments of a couple of member states.

Borrell meanwhile warned that the bloc also needed to bolster its defences in another kind of battle: “A battle of narrative.”

Russia, he said, was trying to blame a growing global food crisis on the international sanctions slapped on it, whereas the blame lay with Moscow, which Borrell accused of “sowing bombs on Ukraine’s fields, (while) Russian warships have blockaded tens of ships full of wheat”.

Russia ‘causing food scarcity’

“Stop blaming the sanctions,” he said. “It is the Russian military that is causing food scarcity.”

Five rounds of sanctions have already been implemented since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, and Borrell said foreign ministers had discussed today “how to implement the sanctions to avoid any kind of loopholes,” as well as “what else can be done”.

The European Union is now committed to what European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen says are “rolling sanctions” on Russia. But it has so far held back from those which would hit Moscow’s coffers the hardest: a boycott of Russian oil and gas exports.

The fifth round of sanctions includes a ban on Russian coal imports into the EU – an important first step towards what could become a broader prohibition on energy supplies.

Many ministers at today’s meeting backed further energy sanctions, but they also stressed the importance of maintaining EU consensus and unity.

Speaking as he arrived for the meeting, Foreign Minister Simon Coveney acknowledged that banning Russian oil was “very difficult for some member states”.

“Ireland has maintained for quite some time that we need to take a maximalist approach to sanctions to offer the strongest deterrent to the continuation of this war and brutality,” Coveney said.

“That should include, in our view, oil.

“We know that is very difficult for some member states and we have to keep a united position across the EU.

“We now have coal as part of the sanctions package. We know that the commission is working on a future package that we hope we can see soon that will involve oil as well.

“The European Union is spending hundreds of millions of euros importing oil from Russia. That is certainly contributing to financing this war.

“In our view we need to cut off that financing of war even though it creates huge challenges and problems for the EU to solve together.

“We will see what the commission says. They are now working on ensuring that oil is part of the next sanctions package. We believe the sooner that can happen the better,” Coveney added.

One obstacle to widening energy sanctions is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an EU leader close with the Russian president who won re-election to a fourth term a week ago.

Orban has refused to take them further. Yet EU sanctions require unanimity from all 27 member states.

Hungary and Bulgaria had meanwhile not blocked the move to release further funds to provide more weapons to Ukraine, as some had feared.

“They will pay their share of the 1.5 billion,” Borrell said.

‘Inadequate’

The dependence on Russian hydrocarbons of Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Italy and some other EU countries has also made it difficult to find consensus on tightening sanctions further.

“But there are no flat ‘No’s', like there were in the beginning,” Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said after the meeting, acknowledging though that “this is not going to be a swift decision”.

Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau complained that the EU was acting too slowly.

“We should have already introduced this embargo a long time ago,” he said. “At the moment, the sanctions are inadequate.”

Additional reporting from Press Association

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