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Forget Brexit, the EU needs to think about Venezuela

WHILE in the UK the black hole otherwise known as Brexit has sucked in nearly all media and political attention, that is not the case elsewhere in Europe. Indeed in Brussels it has long been regarded as an unwelcome distraction from bigger problems the EU is facing, both internally and across the world. In recent days, the European Parliament has addressed one such challenge, namely the political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

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First published in The National, 10 February 2019

From a humanitarian perspective, the stakes are alarmingly high. Since the start of the crisis, over one million Venezuelan refugees have crossed into neighbouring Colombia, a country which, according to the UNHCR, already has over seven million of its own Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) after decades of civil war. A further 1.4m who have continued on to Ecuador and Peru and within Venezuela the rate of inflation stands at 1.68m%.

As regards politics – and above all the preservation of democracy – the situation is no less serious. The presidential elections held in May 2018 were not free and fair: the date was changed repeatedly, from December 2018 to April to May, key opposition candidates were prevented from standing and the turnout of 25% was the lowest in Venezuelan history. This is why the result is not recognised by the people of Venezuela, their National Assembly and the bulk of the international community but Nicolás Maduro chose nonetheless to have himself sworn in on January 10.

Throughout this time, the situation in Venezuela has been the subject of much debate and attention within the Greens/EFA group and across the European Parliament as a whole. The overwhelming view across most political groups is that the current state of affairs simply cannot continue and that free and fair elections must take place as soon as is feasible. Maduro was given the chance to end this by calling new elections but consistently refused to do so. This is why the majority of the international community(with some predictable exceptions such as Russia, China and Iran) has now taken the decision to recognise Juan Guaidó, in his capacity as President of the National Assembly, as interim President according to Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitutionwith a mandate to call fresh elections.

The Parliament resolution for which I voted for on January 31 along with 438 other MEPs (104 against, 88 abstentions), does however go further than this. We also explicitly rejected “any proposals or attempts to resolve the crisis that might entail the use of violence” and strongly supported UN Secretary-General Guterres in his call for a full and independent investigation into the dozens of killings that Maduro’s regime have perpetrated in their repression of social protests and demonstrations.

On the question of violence, with the stakes so high, what the people of Venezuela need right now is cool heads and calm rhetoric from all concerned. Maduro’s threats of civil war and his recruitment of Russian private security contractors – i.e. mercenaries – are deplorable. President Trump’s refusal to rule out military action, although not in the same vein, is also highly regrettable. Aside from fuelling the baseless theories that opposition to Maduro is some kind of American-backed coup, the focus must be on nothing other than diplomatic dialogue and humanitarian aid.

It is therefore gratifying that the EU is taking a more responsible and diplomatic approach, beginning with the creation by the EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini of an international contact group of European and Latin American countries, just as the European Parliament called for in our resolution. The group’s aim is to enable the holding of new elections under democratic conditions and to chart a peaceful end to Venezuela’s political crisis within ninety days.

In the meantime, aside from cool heads and continued dialogue, the people of Venezuela also badly need food and medical supplies. It is absolutely unacceptable that Maduro continues his refusal to receive and distribute international humanitarian aid, on Wednesday even going so far as to deploy the military to block a border crossing with Colombia where a shipment organised by Guaidó was due to enter the country. Maduro’s weaponisation of food and medicine against his own people is unconscionable and anybody who continues to believe that he is in any way a legitimate President would do well to consider that.

So while the UK retreats into Brexit fantasy, the EU continues to play its part as a responsible and progressive player in the international community; indeed, this crisis in Venezuela and the reactions of other global players has shown yet again that the EU is needed more than ever on the world stage. For whatever time we have left within the EU and its institutions, we will be part of that effort. If and when Brexit goes ahead, Scotlandwill have to find new ways to contribute to the EU’s good work but we will do that. We won’t let Brexit stop Scotland from being a force for good in the world.