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article imageWhat is the EU Venezuela contact group and what does it hope to achieve?

By Damon WAKE (AFP)     Feb 5, 2019 in World

European and Latin American envoys will gather in Montevideo on Thursday for the first meeting of an international contact group aimed at charting a peaceful end to Venezuela's political crisis.

Around 20 EU countries have joined the US and key regional powers in recognising opposition chief Juan Guaido as interim leader, adding to the pressure on President Nicolas Maduro, who has presided over his oil-rich country's collapse into economic ruin and political turmoil.

While maintaining pressure on the Maduro regime through diplomacy and targeted sanctions, the European Union sees the contact group as a way of starting work on a process to help Venezuela find a way out of the chaos.

- Who is taking part?

Eight European countries have confirmed -- Spain, France, Britain, Germany, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden -- along with Uruguay, Ecuador, Bolivia and Costa Rica from Latin America. Mexico has been invited but not yet confirmed.

The EU has said other countries may join but it wants to keep the size of the group "manageable and conducive to results" -- having too many members would make it hard to take decisions.

The Vatican, which has led past mediation efforts in Venezuela, will be kept closely informed on the group's work but is not taking part.

Thursday's meeting will be at ministerial level, though given the short notice some countries will be represented by more junior officials.

Separately, Mexico and Uruguay have called a meeting of countries taking a "neutral" stance in the crisis, also due to be held in Montevideo on Thursday.

- What does the group hope to achieve?

The EU has stressed the contact group is not there to mediate or organise dialogue in the Venezuela crisis, but to coordinate international efforts to bring matters to a peaceful, democratic conclusion through new elections.

The group will follow a two-stage process. First they plan to build a common understanding among the group's members about the situation in Venezuela and how new, credible polls could be organised. Then they will contact the Venezuelans to find out what they want from the process and decide how to proceed, offering further support as needed.

Brussels does not want the group to be hijacked as a time-wasting exercise, and so has imposed a 90-day review period -- if not enough progress has been made by that point, the group will be terminated.

For the EU, the final outcome to the crisis -- including the important question of what happens to senior regime figures accused of rights abuses -- must be decided by Venezuelans, not imposed from outside.

The bloc has not set a deadline or timetable for elections, stressing instead the fact that polls must be free and fair and supervised by independent international observers -- conditions that will likely take time to achieve.

- What other steps are being taken?

The EU already has sanctions in place against 18 members of the Maduro regime and has warned that more could be in the offing.

But Brussels is keen to avoid adding to the miseries of the long-suffering Venezuelan people and so has said any further measures would be carefully targeted.

- What are the hopes for success?

Both publicly and in private, EU officials are playing down the group's chances of achieving a breakthrough, aware of earlier failed efforts by others to mediate in Venezuela's long-running crisis and conscious that Maduro still enjoys the support of big players including China and Russia -- and crucially, the Venezuelan military.

Even the EU's normally upbeat diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini warned on Friday that she did "not have positive expectations" about the contact group.

But Brussels hopes that adding a credible roadmap out of the current situation to the growing diplomatic and economic pressure will go some way to convincing Maduro that the status quo is untenable and that a way out is possible without the country collapsing into violence.

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