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EU's difficult mission in Venezuela

Mirra Banchon
March 9, 2019

The European Union-backed International Contact Group is set to convene at the end of March to find a peaceful solution to the power struggle in Venezuela. Chances of success are difficult to predict.

Protest in Venezuela against Maduro
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/E. Verdugo

Given the explosive situation in Venezuela, it is difficult to tell how the power struggle between acting President Nicolas Maduro and self-declared interim President Juan Guaido might develop before the month is out. That's when the International Contact Group (ICG), backed by the European Union, will meet to find a peaceful way out of the crisis.

Daniel Kriener, Germany's ambassador to Venezuela, has since been ordered to leave the country. The Maduro government accused him of meddling in the country's internal affairs. That doesn't help the ICG, which aside from Germany comprises Uruguay, Costa Rica, Ecuador, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, the United Kingdom and Sweden.

Read more: What does it mean to be declared persona non grata?

Maduro's government says it's prepared to maintain "respectful and cooperative relations with all European countries." However, Venezuela's Foreign Ministry said in a statement it will not allow another country's representative to meddle in its domestic politics.

Daniel Kriener in Caracas
German Ambassador Daniel Kriener was declared persona non grata by MaduroImage: Imago/V. Sharifulin

That may prove difficult for the ICG and its work, which is to create the necessary conditions and guarantees for credible elections as well as help bring humanitarian relief into the country, in accordance with international norms.

The ICG first convened in Montevideo, Uruguay, on February 7, before going to Venezuela on February 20 and 21 for initial talks with the government, opposition and civil society organizations. This came after the Venezuelan government had denied entry to a group of MEPs.

When Juan Guaido risked arrest by returning to Venezuela on March 4, he was greeted at the airport in Caracas by more than just his supporters; the ambassadors from Germany, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania and Spain were there, too. Only Germany's top diplomat to the country was expelled.

Alternative to US position

The US threat of military intervention, something the EU does not support, poses a particular challenge. "This is exactly the time the international community needs to put pressure on the Venezuelan government, but differently than the Lima Group of Latin American countries in conjunction with the excessively aggressive United States," Pawel Zerka, the coordinator of the European Power program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW. "It's good that the EU is trying to stake out a different position from the US."

Read more: '2019 will go down as a year of liberation for Venezuela'

"President Nicolas Maduro's ability to block humanitarian aid at the border suggests that a democratic transition in Venezuela won't be easy," Zerka added. "The grace period for Guaido is over."

Juan Guaido waving to crowd
Guaido returned to Venezuela on March 4Image: picture alliance/NurPhoto/R. B. Sierralta

Given the current situation, "Guaido and Maduro must meet each other," he said, adding that such a necessary discussion requires the support of members of the international community that are neither tied to Guaido nor pushing for military intervention.

Flexibility or incoherence?

Most of the EU's 28 member states have recognized Guaido as interim president. The EU as a whole, however, has not. Italy, Greece, Slovakia, Malta and Cyprus have all given various reasons for not doing so, denying the EU the unanimous decision it would need to support Guaido.

The Venezuelan government views the EU's message as incoherent, simultaneously pushing for dialogue while recognizing Guaido's legitimacy. Zerka maintains the difference of opinion between the EU as a whole and its members is not necessarily a disadvantage. Speaking as member states rather than a single bloc gives the EU room to maneuver. "It could turn out to be valuable," he said.

Nevertheless, the EU's position is hardly the decisive one in finding a way out of the crisis in Venezuela. The desire to do so has to come from the region and within the country itself, Zerka said. "The ICG can, however, lend credibility to any negotiated transition process."