Analysis | How European Foreign Policy is Crafted towards Venezuela

Analysis | How European Foreign Policy is Crafted towards Venezuela

London — When we discuss foreign policy, we are often talking about the powers of the executive branch of government. Foreign policy can call on quick reactions to moments of crisis and many political systems empower their executives to take these decisions. The traditional role of the executive as the international representative of the state also reinforces this link between this part of government and foreign policy.

So, what does it mean then when we talk about ‘European foreign policy’? The European Union, integrated though it is, does not have an executive of the kind found in actual states. There is no single European government, President, or Ministry that can unilaterally make decisions on foreign policy. While the European Union does have a Common Foreign and Security Policy — a coordination of EU member states’ foreign policies on consensus issues — all EU member states formally manage their own independent foreign policies. 

Nonetheless, European states remain aware of the importance of working together to amplify their collective voice. Coordinating reactions and forming joint positions is key to the development of European foreign policy. The European reaction to recent developments of the crisis in Venezuela is a strong example of how European foreign policy is made and implemented in practice.

On Thursday 10th January, Nicolás Maduro took office for a second six-year presidential term. On Wednesday 23rd January, scheduled protests broke out across Venezuela against the continued and allegedly illegal presidency of Nicolás Maduro. Yet even as of the 23rd, there was as still no common EU policy towards Venezuela. Although certain EU states retained communication links and other ties with Venezuela, there was no coordinated position. 

Over the course of the day, it became widely apparent that the situation in the country had escalated after the National Assembly leader, Juan Guaidó, was sworn in as interim president. The world was faced with two competing regimes in Venezuela and a very serious dilemma over its response.

EU Council President Donald Tusk was among the first to put forth a clear message, calling on EU leaders to recognize Guaidó’s legitimacy. Tusk’s statement did not come as much of a surprise given the widespread European condemnation of Venezuela’s May 2018 elections for electoral fraud. The chances of Europe providing any kind of support to Maduro were always low. Nonetheless, Tusk’s statement stopped short of actually calling for the recognition of Guaidó as interim President of Venezuela, instead expressing a more nebulous support by recognizing the sole legitimacy of the National Assembly as a whole. 

Denmark’s Foreign Minister said something very similar.

That night, the EU issued a joint statement, delivered by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Frederica Mogherini. The statement’s language was mostly a call for calm, though it included a statement on the need for new elections.

The next day, the President of the European Parliament reinforced this position, emphasizing calm and an opposition to the use of violence, without clearly stating what should be done in terms of the legitimacy of the regime (though the reference to previous crimes committed under Maduro’s presidency left little doubt).

French President Emmanuel Macron took a similar line to Tusk, though again, the focus was on Maduro’s election as illegitimate rather than a recognition of Guaidó.

During that same day, announcements came from other key players in Europe. Among these were the positions from the three main party groups in the European Parliament: the EPP, the S&D and ALDE.

In some sense they all followed a similar theme to Tusk’s statement — Maduro’s presidency is illegitimate and the National Assembly is the only institution left with democratic authority. It was also at this juncture that the EU introduced the call for new, free, and fair elections. The question of recognising Guaido does seem to have generated some division however. While ALDE’s President, Guy Verhofstadt, unambiguously took that position, neither the EPP or S&D agreed.

The idea of outright recognising a new regime in opposition to the existing one is a difficult proposition to sell without further consideration in Europe. European politicians and publics are generally wary of intervening in the affairs of other countries. The possibility that heavily backing one side could provoke a violent backlash from the established regime was likely a consideration. It’s an especially difficult line of the S&D to walk given the way that Venezuela has long held a totemic position among the Western left as a symbol of socialism (although it has become more controversial and now holds less sway as Maduro’s policies have turned authoritarian).

Other EU leaders followed suit: Heiko Maas, the German Foreign Minister, stated that Germany supported the idea of new elections and rejected Maduro’s position as President of Venezuela, while the Portuguese Foreign Minister also backed fresh elections.

By the end of the 24th and into the 25th the call for new elections, held to international standards, quickly emerged as the safest and strongest consensus position in Europe. Maduro was illegitimate, that much was clear from the European side, but whether and when the EU would recognise Guaidó remained contested.

Behind the scenes there was a push to address this question. On the morning of Saturday 26th, Germany, France and Spain issued coordinated statements, all articulating the same position: new elections would have to be held within 8 days in Venezuela. Failing that, they would recognise Guaidó as the legitimate leader of the country.

Indeed the statements were so similar in the French and German case that they could have been direct translations of one another. By midday there were suggestions that this would form the EU’s official policy across all 28 EU states.

The push to adopt this new policy developed further momentum when the UK’s Foreign Minister, Jeremy Hunt, publicly confirmed the UK’s support for this position.

It is worth noting that the Portuguese Foreign Ministry also put forward a similar statement, though it lacked the eight-day deadline.

A final, comprehensive position emerged from Brussels on Saturday afternoon.

In the statement, the EU declared that the last elections in Venezuela were not legitimate, that new elections needed to be called in the following days, and that if they weren’t, then the EU would ‘take further actions, including upon the issue of recognition of the country’s leadership.’

What is noteworthy from Brussels’ final position is the lack of the specific timeline of 8 days to hold elections. This was apparently the result of resistance from Italy — more specifically one of the partners in Rome’s ruling coalition, the Five Star Movement (M5S). Indeed, the EU position seems to have been influenced by a necessary compromise between M5S and their partner Lega, who hold strong disagreements when it comes to their respective views of the Maduro regime. The far-right Lega holds no love for Maduro, while M5S is more sympathetic. Holding the Italian government together on this question may end up a more vexing task for the Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, than ensuring the EU’s overall position remains consistent.

It is also important to note that the continued resistance of M5S stood in stark contrast to Greece’s ruling party, Syriza. Having expressed their support for Maduro on the 24th, Greece was ready to back the European eight-day limit come the 26th.

Starting with no joint policy at all on the 23rd, by the 26th all 28 EU states had developed a common foreign policy towards the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. What does this tell us about the construction of modern EU foreign policy? Here are a few takeaways.

First, although the EU lacks a single executive, strong diplomatic and political links between the EU’s governments and a strong political desire to articulate unified positions allows the EU to form effective foreign policy.

Second, it demonstrates a likely first-mover advantage in the setting of EU foreign policy. There are clear gains to be had from major players staking out their positions and rapidly forming coalitions within the EU in support of their perspective. Coming to the table after informal talks have been convened can leave EU governments under immense pressure to either accept the prevailing policy winds or break with the EU line entirely (something they are often unwilling to do).

Third, EU foreign policy is often informed by its ‘expert’ country. Individual countries of the EU maintain stronger historical, cultural, economic, political and/or technological ties to other parts of the world than the EU as a whole. There is no doubt that the Spanish and Portuguese were consulted heavily as they have the strongest historical and political ties to the region and host a significant number of immigrants from Venezuela. 

In areas of policy where EU governments can compellingly argue that they have a better understanding of the situation they can carry real authority. Fellow EU states who, in an abstract sense, may not be invested in a situation at all will be willing to listen and follow their lead. Looking closely at these second and third points, ‘experts’ who are also first movers likely have an opportunity to entirely define EU foreign policy towards a particular country, region, policy area, or event.

Finally, it should be noted that, in many ways, conditions were rather ideal in the case of Venezuela. The initial position of national governments and EU leaders across the EU was not far from the outcome consensus — it seems that only the specific deadline really posed any difficulty. In addition, the lack of resource commitment (either financial or military) likely facilitated the task of building a consensus.

Nevertheless, this policy was not a product of structural weakness. The EU adopted this policy because governments genuinely believed it was the best route. Using the leverage of recognition to push Maduro to hold elections is a position that holds just as much merit as the United States’ decision to immediately recognise Guaidó. 

However, this was not the end of the story. Though the EU28 now had a unified position, events continued to develop and on Thursday 31st January, the European Parliament voted in favour of recognising Guaidó — ramping up pressure on national leaders to do the same.

With the deadline fast approaching for recognising Guaidó (as Maduro had already categorically ruled out new presidential elections), a decision had to be reached. Though there was a real push for an EU-wide recognition of Guaidó, the firm resistance of Italy (again as a result of M5S) blocked this push. Here therefore we see the real weakness of European foreign policy. Any decisions that require real commitments can often bring up strong opposition from even just one or two states. The requirement of unanimity in these instances means that the EU ends up falling short of the influence and clout it could exercise in world affairs.

This does not mean European states will do nothing. The final EU-level agreement was that individual states could put out their own statements on Venezuela, with most supporting Guaidó in some way and with a minority of larger states (likely France, Germany, Spain, the UK and Portugal) explicitly recognising Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate interim leader. Importantly, these leading states (and Frederica Mogherini) will work with partners in Latin America to establish an ‘International Contact Group’ to help manage the crisis through peaceful means. And here is our final lesson for now: where action formally organised at the EU-level is deemed impossible, it is common to see EU states form ad hoc coalitions to advance their preferred aims. Where EU action is missing, we see a kind of unilateralism within the EU — though often driven by a group of states and rarely by a single state.

The crisis in Venezuela has been instructive in helping us understand what ‘European foreign policy’ looks like in the real world. Commentators wishing to understand further would do well to keep on following these developments as by no means is everything solved. What if the international mediation leads nowhere? Will the EU issue anything more than strongly worded statements if the Maduro regime resorts to violence? And how will the EU react if the U.S. decides to become involved militarily? Policy analysts, and indeed, the world will be watching Brussels — and other European capitals — for answers to these questions in the weeks and months to come. For now, we can only hope the European Union remains unified, judicious, and decisive in its response.

Pascal Letendre-Hanns

- International Scholar of European Affairs and Politics
- Twitter: @PascalLTH
- LinkedIn: Pascal Letendre-Hanns

All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.

Photo Credit:

  1. Isabel Díaz Ayuso junto a Jose Luis Rodriguez Almeida asisten a la concentración en apoyo al gobierno de Juan Guaido by PP Comunidad en Madrid, Flickr

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