Brussels: The European Union reacted cautiously Thursday to the fast-moving crisis in Venezuela, reluctant to abandon all hope of dialogue in a country with a huge European expat community.
On Wednesday, the United States, Canada and most of Caracas' South American neighbours endorsed opposition leader Juan Guaido's claim on the Venezuelan presidency.
But European and EU leaders, while expressing support for popular protests against incumbent Nicolas Maduro, did not go so far — stressing calls for new elections.
In doing so, they hope to preserve an opportunity to reason with the Maduro regime, and to shield thousands of European expatriates from possible retaliation or mob violence.
"Europe supports the restoration of democracy," France's President Emmanuel Macron declared Thursday, dubbing Maduro's May 2018 election "illegitimate".
"I hail the courage of the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who march for their freedom," he said, without endorsing Guaido's self-declaration as president.
In this, he went only slightly further than EU policy chief Federica Mogherini who rushed out a statement in the name of the 28 EU members after Wednesday's US decision.
"The people of Venezuela have massively called for democracy and the possibility to freely determine their own destiny.
These voices cannot be ignored," she said.
"The EU strongly calls for the start of an immediate political process leading to free and credible elections, in conformity with the Constitutional order."
So, if the members are agreed that it is time for change, why did Brussels not follow its north and south American allies in recognising Guaido as president? Spain's Foreign Minister Josep Borrell dropped one clue.
"I want to remind you that in Venezuela there are 200,000 Spanish citizens... for us it is important," he said, expressing frustration at his more outspoken colleagues.
"The scenario has changed radically, there are deaths, there has been violence, we cannot be as we were before yesterday, we have to prevent things from getting worse."
For Borrell, the official EU line has to remain that Venezuela must return to stability through constitutional means and fresh polls, and caution must prevail.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the priority must be to avoid violence breaking out on the street, where opposition protests face pro-Maduro security forces.
"At the moment the situation is critical and we want to avoid anything that could escalate the situation," he said.
Before the latest crisis, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain were pushing to form a diplomatic contact group to help mediate a resolution.
That plan now appears likely to fall by the wayside or be superseded by events on the ground, but Brussels is wary of irrevocably burning all bridges with the Maduro camp.
This is probably the right approach for now, argues Carlos Malamud, principal researcher at the Real Instituto Elcano think-tank, based in Madrid.
"Evidently, if Europe had a single government, it would be easier to reach a common position but... it does not seem to me to be a bad response," he told AFP.
"If they recognise Guaido as the only legitimate authority in Venezuela, that means breaking all bridges with Chavismo and negotiating solution will be much more complicated.
"For some time now, there has been a search for different options for dialogue, some of which are still open. If all the bridges are cut, it will be very difficult."
Some saw the nuanced European response as a sign that Brussels had been caught unaware of US President Donald Trump's decision to make his dramatic intervention.
But a European diplomat said that this time — "for a change" — US officials had given them a heads up.
Intense international coordination is continuing — in particular in Davos — and the next EU foreign ministers' meeting that could agree a new stance will be next week, on 31 January, in Bucharest.
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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2019 23:47:19 IST