The European Parliament would strike against Putin, but some member states remain reluctant
After the disappointing visit of EU High Representative Josep Borrell to Moscow, the Union’s foreign ministers authorized the Commission to prepare sanctions against further Russian individuals for the arrest of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny. The chief of staff of the Russian activist, politician, Leonid Volkov said that Russian President Vladimir Putin would only release Navalny if the EU implemented tough sanctions on the highest levels of Russian leadership. However, the planned sanctions on – among others – Prosecutor-General Igor Krasnov and Federal Prison Service chief Aleksandr Kalashnikov will rarely leave the Kremlin restless.
The plans approved by EU foreign ministers are considerably less ambitious than those demanded by the European Parliament – likely due to the reluctance of some member states.
The European Parliament would not be soft on Russia…
In a resolution approved on 17 September 2020, the European Parliament asked EU foreign ministers to implement ambitious sanctions against Moscow, strengthen existing ones, and implement asset freezes against individuals deemed corrupt by Alexei Navalny’s foundation if there is evidence to back it up. The resolution was supported by the majority of all large parliamentary groups (EPP, S&D, RE, Greens, ECR), but 90% of MEPs sitting in the ID group voted against it. All Hungarian MEPs approved the resolution.
However, Hungarian “national unity” ceased when parliamentarians voted on the paragraph calling on the EU to strengthen sectoral sanctions against Russia, the 13 MEPs from Fidesz-KDNP voted it down. In the Central and Eastern European region – the V4, Austria, Bulgaria and Romania – only the Austrian far-right FPÖ, the Czech far-right SPD, and the Czech far-left MEP Katerina Konecná cast their vote against the paragraph.
However, stepping outside of this region and looking at Germany, we must note that it is not only extremist who do not support such an approach: 50% of the German center-left SPD’s parliamentarians struck down the part of the text on strengthening sanctions. (MEP Attila Ara-Kovács from the S&D Group also criticized the German left-of-center party’s approach to Russia in an interview with Political Capital.)
In a resolution approved on 21 January 2021, the EP demanded the immediate release of Alexei Navalny after his arrest, and called on the Council to “significantly strengthen the EU’s restrictive measures vis-à-vis Russia,” and step up against “Russian oligarchs related to the regime and members of President Putin’s inner circle as well as media propagandists who possess assets in the European Union.“ This resolution also enjoyed widespread support in the only directly elected EU body, including all Hungarian MEPs.
However, there was a considerable change in the ranks of the far-right ID. While 90% of MEPs sitting in the group rejected the resolution in September, in January, the proportion of ID-affiliated parliamentarians rejecting the second one (49.3%) with relatively similar policy demands was barely higher than those approving it (46.5%). The vast majority of supportive votes in ID came from Matteo Salvini’s Lega MEPs, only a few months after all of them rejected sanctioning Russia for the Kremlin’s role in the poisoning of Alexei Navalny.
…but Germany and Hungary would
Russia’s authoritarian domestic policies and aggressive foreign policies would become truly costly for the Putin regime if its attempts to circumnavigate the natural gas transit route via Ukraine failed. These efforts consist of two projects: the Nord Stream II leading to Germany and the Balkans Stream leading to Hungary. The European Parliament has so far mainly dealt with Nord Stream II, which has a larger capacity: it has asked for halting the project twice in relation to the Navalny-case, supported by 68.1% of MEPs in September and 66% of them in January.
Looking at the vote in January on the paragraph specifically addressing Nord Stream II, we can see that MEPs from the Hungarian ruling parties abstained. Fidesz is not alone in the region, the Czech ruling ANO party’s representatives followed a similar voting strategy. In Austria, the larger ruling party ÖVP strongly supports the construction of the pipeline, so it is not surprising the delegation of the Austrian People’s Party voted this paragraph down. The majority of MEPs from the ruling parties of the main beneficiary of Nord Stream II, Germany (CDU, CSU, SPD) voted against or abstained on this part of the text as well, but eight of them – including EPP parliamentary group leader Manfred Weber – approved halting the project.
It is unlikely that Navalny will be released due to EU sanctions
Realistically speaking, the EP’s efforts to strengthen sectoral economic sanctions against Russia will be rejected by the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC), which needs to make a unanimous decision on the issue. The clear no vote of the representatives of the Hungarian ruling parties in the European Parliament on the paragraph regarding this request shows that strengthening sanctions against Russia constitute a red line for the Hungarian government. However, Hungary has so far not blocked adding new names to the EU’s list of sanctioned Russian individuals, but it is uncertain how the country would react if a proposed name would be especially important to the Hungarian cabinet’s interests – such as Gazprom head Alexey Miller. In any case, Hungarian minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó did not even mention the planned new sanctions after the EU foreign ministers’ meeting on 22 February, accused Brussels of using “double standards,” and called attention to the importance of a strategic cooperation with Moscow.
It is also unlikely that the German government, which has consistently supported Nord Stream 2, would reverse course due to resolutions approved by the European Parliament, as not even Washington’s threats of sanctions convinced Berlin to pull its support from the pipeline. Without support for the EP’s stance from member states and especially Germany, the EU will remain unable to step up against the Kremlin effectively, which could bring about more and more failures of EU foreign policy in the foreseeable future. This indicates that the management of the Union’s international relations must be rethought completely, including relaxing the unanimous vote requirement in FAC and strengthening the Parliament’s role in this field.
About the project
Supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, Political Capital and its partners from Austria, Bulgaria, Czechia, Poland, Slovakia and Romania are researching value-based attitudes to foreign policy and authoritarian influence in the European Union’s institutions.