The EU is talking about sanctions against Russia, but consensus may prove elusive

BRUSSELS: The European Union appears determined to respond to new Russian attempts to annex parts of Ukraine with fresh sanctions, but consensus among member states is becoming increasingly difficult as measures designed to punish Moscow take a bite out of their own economies.
The 27-nation bloc has imposed six rounds of sanctions on Russia since President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to Ukraine on February 24. Banks, businesses and markets have been hit – even parts of the sensitive energy sector – and more than 1,200 officials have been targeted by asset freezes and travel bans.
What could previously have taken years to agree was achieved in just over three months – relative light speed for the EU. But European economies, already battered by the Covid-19 pandemic, are now struggling with high inflation and skyrocketing electricity and natural gas prices.
The EU was spurred into action again by the announcement that Russian-controlled regions in eastern and southern Ukraine plan to hold referendums on whether to become part of Russia. This could allow Moscow to escalate the war, especially after Putin’s decision to call up 300,000 military reservists.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Wednesday that “Russia, its political leadership and all those involved in the organization of these ‘referendums’ and other violations of international law and international humanitarian law in Ukraine will be held accountable.”
“Further restrictive measures against Russia will be introduced as soon as possible in cooperation with our partners,” he said in a statement after chairing an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
But political declarations by officials in Brussels are the easy part. Agreeing on new measures has proven extremely difficult. Energy interests are particularly difficult to overcome. Hungary has resisted sanctions that could hit its supplies from Russia, but it is not alone in its hesitation.
The latest round of sanctions was announced on May 4 but not agreed until four weeks later as concerns over oil divided member states. Instead of a new set of sanctions, a maintenance and harmonization package was closed in July, mainly to close gaps in already agreed measures.
Still, Moscow’s mayor was one of 54 people whose assets were frozen, and Russia’s major financial institution Sberbank was also targeted.
Meanwhile, technical work on the seventh package has continued quietly.
Pressed by reporters in New York for details on what might be coming, Borrell said the sanctions would target “new areas of the Russian economy, particularly — if I can be a little more specific — technological.”
“I am confident that we will be able to reach a unanimous agreement on the new sanctions package,” he said.
Ursula von der Leyen, who heads the European Union’s executive branch, the European Commission, which has been responsible for developing most of the sanctions, also appeared resolute, but she was hardly more accommodating.
“We are prepared to pay additional economic costs to Russia and to individuals and entities in Russia and outside Russia who support (the war) politically or economically. We will also propose additional export controls on civilian technology as Russia transitions to a full war economy,” he told CNN.
The European Commission is expected to propose new measures in the coming days, but what is finally agreed is likely to be less ambitious. New sanctions may come in the coming weeks only after much discussion and hand-wringing among the 27 EU member states; probably only after holding referendums.