Berlin – The international pressure on Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro intensified on Monday as a host of European Union nations declared his rival Juan Guaido as interim president.
Germany, France, Britain and Spain were among the EU states to officially endorse Guaido and call for fresh elections in crisis-hit Venezuela, where the two men have battled for power in recent weeks.
"It is only the Venezuelan people that has to decide their future," Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said in a statement.
"Venezuela has to be the master of its own destiny, and it is up to the international community to help and respect the outcome of the democratic process and verify that it takes place with all necessary guarantees," he said.
Last week several European Union nations gave Maduro an eight-day deadline to announce new elections or they would recognize Guaido as the country’s leader. After the cut-off point was reached on Sunday, European capitals began making announcements on Monday morning.
"By yesterday there was no call for presidential elections, therefore Guaido is the person … We expect to initiate an election process as quickly as possible and for this task he is the legitimate interim president in the view of Germany and many European partners," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
A joint EU statement was notably missing on Monday, however.
Italy was blocking agreement on such a statement, diplomatic sources told dpa, due to a split in opinion in the coalition government.
The Five Star Movement was concerned that Maduro’s forced departure could lead to a chaotic situation like that in Libya, Afghanistan or Iraq. The far-right League is however keen to see Maduro leave office.
Russia, one of Maduro’s most powerful foreign backers, having provided billions of dollars of credit to his government in recent years, denounced the diplomatic pressure as "meddling in Venezuela’s internal affairs."
Such intervention "does not contribute in any way to a peaceful, effective and vital settlement to the crisis that Venezuelans are enduring," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in comments carried by state news agency TASS.
Other EU states to support Guaido include Austria, the Netherlands, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg and Portugal. They join the United States, Canada, Australia and a host of Latin American powers, including Brazil and Argentina.
Guaido, the leader of the National Assembly, declared himself interim head of state on January 23.
In an interview with Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper published on Monday, Guaido said the EU needed "to act in unison so that the forces who are still supporting Maduro feel all the weight of Europe’s diplomatic and political pressure."
"We are in permanent contact with the governments of Spain, France, the United Kingdom and Germany. They showed the most solidarity towards us and they are constantly monitoring events in Venezuela. Their support for us has been fundamental," he said.
Maduro, who was re-elected in a vote last year that Western powers have described as a sham, announced before deadline he wouldn’t heed ultimatum.
On Monday, Maduro said he had written to Pope Francis, urging him to play a mediating role.
"I ask the pope to offer his best efforts, his will, to help us on this path of dialogue. I hope we will have a positive answer [from him]," Maduro told Italian news channel SkyTg24.
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have turned out in recent protests to demand Maduro’s exit, although he appears to have the support of the nation’s powerful military and security services. He is also backed by Russia, China, Turkey, Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua.