The terrible images that have emerged this weekend like nightmares taken from some ring near hell have marked a turning point in Brussels. The European Commission, which has been calibrating the next sanctioning package for weeks, planned to present a fifth package these days focused on refining and closing the holes of the previous four rounds. The sight of this massacre allegedly perpetrated by the Russian army in Bucha and other towns around kyiv, in Ukraine, raises the pressure to new heights for Brussels to harden the coup and target the Russian sector of the Energy. It is one of the great taboos, always postponed until now, and which several capitals resist, including Berlin. With the images still hot in the memory, the capitals plan to evaluate the package this week.
A good handful of community partners, with the Baltic countries at the forefront, have begun to raise the tone to demand that the step be taken and the tap on Russian gas, oil and coal be closed, the fuels with which the EU transfers daily about 700 million euros to the coffers of the regime of Vladimir Putin.
“The pressure is increasing and we hope that the sanctions package will be reinforced, especially after Bucha,” explains a diplomatic source, who believes that the Community Executive could have its new proposal ready this Tuesday, which should then be reviewed by the European ambassadors. and approved by the Council of the EU (the body that represents the Twenty-seven). Two other diplomatic sources speak of this same “pressure” to include the energy sector. But they acknowledge that opposition from Germany and Austria to unplugging from Russian gas remains very strong.
The graphic testimonies that emerge from Ukraine, in any case, have accelerated the sanctioning pulse of Brussels after some countries denounced how the Twenty-seven had allowed themselves to be dragged by a certain “sanction fatigue”. This Monday it started in the community capital with the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, claiming to speed up, assuring that the EU began to work “as a matter of urgency” on new retaliation against the Kremlin in response to “the information about the atrocities committed by the Russian armed forces”.
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On the other side of the Atlantic, US President Joe Biden has stressed that Washington also plans to approve “new sanctions”. Last week Brussels received the visit of Adewale Adeyemo, the US deputy secretary of the Treasury, which suggests a coordinated coup from both sides.
Borrell has already played a key role in the previous rounds, when it came to negotiating highly volatile and divisive measures, such as including Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, on the EU blacklist or disconnecting several Russian banks from the Swift system of communication between financial institutions. Its leading role may also be essential in this next round in which the EU is facing a new existential question shrouded in contradictions: whether or not to close the energy tap that flows from Russia, heats European homes and drives the cars of its citizens?
“No measure is ruled out,” the European Commissioner for the Economy, Paolo Gentiloni, responded to the question on Monday, when asked about the possibility of a new package of sanctions attacking Russian oil imports. “This is now truer than ever,” he added in an appearance prior to the Eurogroup meeting in Luxembourg. “We are all in shock from what we’ve seen, war crimes.”
This weekend, the Commission, which is the one who has to propose the new package of sanctions to the Twenty-seven, has been taking the sanctioning temperature of different capitals, indicates a diplomatic source. And he was able to verify that this resistance to cutting off the energy flow continues to exist in Berlin and Vienna. “Germany and Austria are not ready yet. But the pressure is increasing”, explains this source. Hungary, he adds, is also in the bloc of those who refuse to cut gas imports. And it is foreseeable that with a full Viktor Orbán, after his electoral victory this Sunday, Budapest will continue to maintain the line defended until now, of avoiding going further in the sanctions so as not to widen the economic hole in the EU.
From Luxembourg, the finance ministers of Germany and Austria have once again expressed their reservations about going a step further immediately. “We have to put more pressure on Putin and isolate Russia, we have to cut all economic relations with Russia, but at the moment it is not possible to cut off the gas supply,” said German Christian Lindner. “We need time and so we have to differentiate between oil, coal and gas for the time being.” One of the options that have been considered is not to attack all sectors at once, but to go for oil or gas in a first strike, raw materials that are more easily substituted for the community bloc. When questioned in this way, the German replied: “Let’s not speculate.” Just a few hours after his words, Berlin decreed to take control of the German subsidiary of the Russian company Gazprom to guarantee the supply of this fuel.
Germany estimates that such a brutal disconnection still needs time: the logical thing would be to start with coal in the middle of this year, continue with oil and finish off with gas at the end. But also consider that there are other countries that are reluctant to touch these imports, such as Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria.
The EU needs to import 90% of the gas it consumes, of which Russia provides more than 40%, according to data from the Commission. Furthermore, 27% of oil imports and 46% of coal imports also come from Russia.
“Sanctions must not affect oneself more than they affect the sanctioned person,” said the Austrian finance minister, Magnus Brunner, when questioned on the same issue. “That is why, together with Germany, we are very cautious about a gas embargo, because we fear that the consequences for us will be greater than for Russia”, he added, although he has not been closed to taking other measures. “I’m just a little cautious with gas,” he stressed. “Only the gas sector.”
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, whose country holds the European presidency this semester and is therefore responsible for guiding the debates among the Twenty-seven, has also narrowed down the field of possible fuels, marking a possible territory of consensus. “What happened in Bucha requires a new set of very clear sanctions and measures,” he explained in an interview on France Inter. “So we are going to coordinate with our European partners, in particular with Germany”, he said, to include measures on “coal and oil” in the “next few days”.
Brussels supports the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office to clarify the facts
“The heartbreaking images cannot and will not remain unanswered,” the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, assured this Monday, after speaking at noon with the Ukrainian president, Volodímir Zelenski, about the “appalling murders” discovered in Bucha and other cities recently abandoned by Russian troops.
Von der Leyen has promised to strengthen cooperation with kyiv to clarify the facts and has announced the creation of a joint team to collect evidence on the ground and investigate possible war crimes and to support the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office, even mobilizing the EU law enforcement and justice agencies, Eurojust and Europol. “This coordinated approach of the Ukrainian authorities, the EU, its member states and agencies, and the International Criminal Court will allow the collection, analysis and processing of evidence in the most complete and efficient way possible,” Von der Leyen explained in a statement.