Europe should do better on Venezuela

The EU has taken constructive steps to address the crisis in Venezuela, but the lack of a common European position could threaten progress towards a peaceful transition of power. 

Last month, many observers of Venezuela were torn by contradictory feelings. When the president of the National Assembly of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, swore to “formally assume the power of the national executive office as the president of Venezuela”, he inspired rare hope in a country long marred by a deep political, economic, and security crisis. Yet the decision of several countries in the Americas – including the United States and Canada, along with Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, and other members of the Lima Group – to quickly recognise him as Venezuela’s interim president seemed rushed. In the case of the US, this brought back worrying memories of cold war interventionism in what Washington considered to be its backyard.

The Venezuelan crisis tests the EU’s capacity to pursue a foreign policy that is not just engaged and ambitious but also consistent and unified, at a time of significant political discord among its member states

The immediate challenge for European countries was whether to follow suit in recognising Guaidó, who had become de jure acting president under the constitution. Many of them knew they needed to be cautious, given the presence of large communities of Europeans citizens in Venezuela (especially Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian ones), a feature that distinguishes the country from other parts of Latin America. Coupled with important economic interests and human rights concerns, this factor has given Europe an important role in the crisis.

So far, the European Union has coped with the challenge surprisingly well. It has allowed its members a reasonable degree of flexibility in dealing with Venezuela. Berlin, Paris, London, and Madrid led the way by announcing that they were ready to recognise Guaidó if Nicolás Maduro, the country’s de facto leader, failed to call a new election within eight days. Once this deadline passed, they did just that. So did all other EU member states aside from Italy, Slovakia, Greece, and Cyprus (Austria initially opposed the move, but later changed its position).

Following an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in late January, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini expressed support for the National Assembly, calling it “the democratic, legitimate body of Venezuela”. She could not formally recognise Guaidó given lack of unanimity among member states. But she at least underlined their agreement on one crucial point: “the presidential elections that were held in (sic) last May in Venezuela were lacking democratic legitimacy”.

The EU agreed to establish the Uruguay-led International Contact Group with Latin American countries that had not recognised Guaidó but did not want to be passive on the crisis, and that sought dialogue and a new election. The group, which includes eight EU members and four Latin American countries, held its first meeting in Montevideo earlier this month.

In the meantime, the European Parliament has adopted a non-binding resolution that recognised Guaidó as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela. And, just this week, an EU mission visited Caracas to try to convince Maduro to hold an election. In all, Europe has differentiated itself from the US as a constructive player in Venezuela – one that is formulating a backup plan for political change in the country, in case sheer diplomatic and economic pressure prove ineffective.

However, there are clear limits to what the EU can achieve without establishing a common position on Venezuela. It failed to do so, largely as a result of Italy’s veto.

The nature of the Venezuelan crisis has changed in recent weeks. For one thing, Guaidó has firmly established himself as a leader of the Venezuelan opposition, not only drawing support from various strands of anti-Chavista parties but also reaching out to dissidents within the regime. At the same time, Maduro’s diplomatic isolation is unprecedented (as historian Carlos Malamud of the Real Instituto Elcano in Madrid observes), and it appears to have become irreversible.

In this new context, the EU’s lack of a unified position is becoming a serious practical and diplomatic handicap. Individual member states can impose limited sanctions on Maduro’s regime, such as travel bans and asset freezes. But it is hard for them to impose meaningful economic sanctions on Venezuela given the existence of the EU’s single market.

Such measures are key to European efforts to place Maduro under real pressure. As a bloc, the EU currently imposes only an arms embargo and limited sanctions on members of the regime. But it should be able to freeze all Venezuelan government assets in Europe, before handing them over to Guaidó. The EU should also limit European companies’ ability to sign contracts in Venezuela without the approval of Guaidó and the National Assembly. And the bloc should call for food relief and emergency funds to be handed directly to the National Assembly.

If it could demonstrate unity, the EU would find it much easier to play a leading role in international diplomatic efforts on the Venezuelan crisis. As long as this is lacking, US President Donald Trump and his supporters will be able to present themselves as the “leaders of the free world” (as Vice President Mike Pence put it at the Munich Security Conference last week). They will claim to be the true champions of democracy and human rights, contrasting themselves with a divided Europe that, according to their narrative, often says all the right things but disappoints when the time of reckoning comes.

This is another reason why the EU must unify its position. It needs to find a way to convince Italy to go along – perhaps negotiating with the country on internal EU issues (such as the post-2020 Multiannual Financial Framework) or on foreign policy, in which Rome often needs the support of other EU countries (in dealing with, for example, the Libyan conflict). The EU and its member states could persuade other dissenters to change their positions too.

Meanwhile, the bloc must continue to coordinate its position with a wide range of partners, from hardliners in the US and Guaidó supporters in the Lima Group to members of the Mechanism of Montevideo (comprising Uruguay, Mexico, and various Caribbean countries), which hope for a dialogue but dislike international pressure, to members of the International Contact Group. The EU should also consult Norway and the Vatican, given their potential role as mediators.

Europeans should press for the creation of a transitional government. Although they would no longer be able to claim impartiality, the move would allow them to work with others towards a peaceful transition.

An offer of talks on a transition would lack credibility coming from Maduro, given that he has reneged on several promises of dialogue in recent years. Authoritarian regimes often display surprisingly high resilience in dealing with domestic unrest, especially when they can rely on their country’s army and on the kind of external support Maduro receives from Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, and Turkey. As such, the EU should remain open to the option of a negotiated transition.

For this to be possible, Guaidó would need to talk to not only his supporters but also to Maduro. He would also have to convince the military to accept the process – as he has tried to by announcing that he would forgive the military for abuses committed under Maduro (although his proposal has since met with resistance from the opposition hardliners and human rights movements). A negotiated transition would also have two further requirements, in which the EU can make a difference. The first of these is the establishment of a broad international coalition that supports transition talks. The second is the acquiescence of China. Europeans’ may try to change Beijing’s calculation on Venezuela by focusing on the issue in the run-up to the EU-China summit scheduled for early April.

There is also a more radical and counterintuitive option: discussing the Venezuelan crisis with Cuba, which maintains very close relations with the Maduro regime. Of course, this would run counter to the hopes of many in the US and elsewhere, for whom the end of Maduro should naturally pave the way for the end of Cuban leader Raúl Castro. But support from Havana may prove essential in achieving the relatively attainable goal of a peaceful transition in Venezuela. Given the ideological affinity between Havana and Caracas, as well as their close economic and security relationship, a collapse in Venezuela would not be in Cuba’s interest.

Europe’s overriding goal should be to prevent bloodshed, and to enable a transition to a stable and legitimate democratic government that would be “made in Venezuela”. International pressure alone may not be enough to achieve this, a fact the US administration seems to ignore. More importantly, it would be dangerous to create the perception across Latin America that a political transition had been imposed on Venezuela by the region’s reinvigorated hegemon. This would only validate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s argument that he has done nothing wrong in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

The Venezuelan crisis tests the EU’s capacity to pursue a foreign policy that is not just engaged and ambitious but also consistent and unified, at a time of significant political discord among its member states – discord that could grow after this year’s European Parliament election. Europe must demonstrate that it can make a difference in a world in which the US, China, Russia, and other states are increasingly committed to the politics of raw power.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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