Europe's approach to the crisis in Venezuela has lacked assertiveness, yet it has taken decisive and consequential action in the past.
Venezuela has been in a state of crisis for years now. While the European Union has repeatedly insisted on its commitment to help resolve the crisis through peaceful and democratic means, until last year it supported negotiations that were clearly going nowhere. Finally, in 2018 the European Union imposed targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials. The next logical step of the Union’s policy towards Venezuela is to recognize Juan Guaidó as President of Venezuela and to extend its targeted sanctions to make these as effective as possible.
Venezuelans have suffered for too long from humanitarian, political, economic and social crises. They need a government that represents the will of the people -- and one that can work toward solutions. In the long term, however, a change in government will not be enough. Venezuela needs a full transition back to democracy. The European Union has said that it is committed to the restoration of democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela. Its reaction now will show whether Europe is serious about this commitment.
Taking a harder line
The European Union’s approach to Venezuela has lacked assertiveness. Its commitments to support Venezuelan democracy have not often been followed by meaningful action, as the years of futile negotiation with a recalcitrant Maduro regime showed.
That is why I started to call for targeted sanctions at the very beginning of this mandate of the European Parliament, in 2014. Sanctions are appropriate as a response to constant human rights abuses and are useful as a tool to pressure Maduro to reach a solution with the opposition. They are in fact one of the only such tools available to the European Union.
In November 2017, the European Union finally took action. It adopted an arms embargo and a ban on materials that could be used for internal repression. In January 2018 Brussels imposed targeted sanctions against seven Venezuelan officials. This list was expanded to include 18 individuals in June 2018, in response to the fraudulent presidential elections the month before. These were positive steps. They showed that Europe is serious about confronting the violations occurring in Venezuela and is committed to helping resolve the crisis.
The situation, however, continues to get worse by the day. Venezuelans are dying from a severe humanitarian crisis that Maduro has refused to address. The next logical step for the European Union should be to intensify its sanctions, extending them to include close family members of those already sanctioned, and to the state-owned oil firm, PDVSA.
We cannot stop there. The crisis has escalated over the new year, following Maduro’s illegitimate inauguration. National Assembly President Juan Guaidó has declared that he is the interim president. Millions have taken to the streets to support Guaidó. But Maduro is unwilling to call new elections, increasing the risk that an already volatile political situation might escalate even further. U.S. President Donald Trump almost immediately recognized Guaidó, an act that was followed by Canada and many other countries in the region. The EU’s response however, through a declaration by its foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, paled in contrast. While it was a clear message of support to the National Assembly and regretted that fresh elections had not taken place, the high representative’s declaration fell short of recognizing Guaidó as interim president.
The European Union cannot fall short of its values and its principles in Venezuela. This is why I wrote a letter, which was co-signed by 29 Members of the European Parliament from four different groups, asking Mogherini to explicitly recognize Juan Guaidó as President. Following declarations from France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom recognizing Guaidó, on Jan. 26 Mogherini issued a new declaration, this time calling for urgent “free, transparent and credible presidential elections.” If no announcement is made in the next days, Mogherini has stated that the “EU will take further actions, including on the issue of the country’s leadership”. Maduro quickly rejected this ultimatum on elections, and now we are left to see how the European Union will react. The European Parliament voted in a non-binding resolution on Jan. 31 to recognize Guaidó as interim President, but this will not be enough. The European Union needs a united position in defense of democracy in Venezuela, and for that we need all of its member states as well as the high representative to clearly state this line.
The statements made by some member states supporting Guaidó as President over the past week were important. The other states now need to follow. They have taken united action before in consenting to targeted EU sanctions against the Venezuelan regime for its human rights abuses -- that decision required the unanimity of all members. They need to pull together again.
The European Union has time and again denounced the actions of Maduro’s government. Finally, after several years, Europe made a decisive move and imposed sanctions. We cannot back down now. Nor can we continue to wait and see how much worse the situation will get. Maduro has made clear that he will not hold new elections. The European Union should therefore not only swiftly recognize Guaidó as the President, but also continue to pressure the regime through expanded targeted sanctions. The EU needs a strong and united position on Venezuela if we want to remain credible defenders of human rights, democracy and the fundamental values that unite our member states.
The views expressed are the author's own.