EU to impose arms embargo on Venezuela, lays basis for sanctions: diplomats

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union is set to impose an arms embargo on Venezuela and will consider further sanctions in response to the political crisis in the South American country, two EU diplomats said.

A member of the security forces fires his gun during clashes at a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, July 10, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The measures will bring the EU more into line with the United States, which imposed sanctions earlier this year, and they signal a change of tone in Brussels, which had previously resisted taking a tougher approach toward Caracas.

“The steps were approved today, paving the way for approval (by the bloc’s foreign ministers) next Monday,” an EU diplomat said, adding that the ministers’ backing was a formality.

Spain has long pushed for sanctions on those close to President Nicolas Maduro, whom Washington accuses of installing a dictatorship, but the EU has been divided over whom to target, while Britain is a significant arms supplier to Venezuela.

Diplomats said the turning point for EU governments was regional elections that appeared to favor Maduro’s ruling Socialists last month. Polls had suggested the opposition would easily win a majority but in the end it won only a handful of governorships, according to the pro-government electoral board.

However, the decisions taken by EU ambassadors at a meeting on Wednesday only prepare the legal basis for sanctions, without any names. Travel bans and asset freezes would only be imposed on Venezuelan officials “should the evolution of the situation require it”, a second EU diplomat said.

Once approved, the arms embargo will be accompanied by a ban on exports of equipment that could be used for internal repression and of surveillance equipment, the diplomats said.

Critics said it was hypocritical for the bloc to target Venezuela while European countries sold weapons to Saudi Arabia.

“The idea of imposing an arms embargo on Venezuela while refusing to impose one on Saudi Arabia is beyond parody, not least because of Saudi Arabia’s murderous assault on Yemen, which has created one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in the world,” said U.S. philosopher and activist Noam Chomsky.

“But it is easily understandable on the assumption that principles and values are intended for oratorical flourishes, while what matters is tens of billions of dollars in arms sales,” Chomsky said in an email to Reuters.

Saudi Arabia intervened militarily in Yemen’s civil war starting in 2015, attacking Houthi militia and loyalists of a former president said to be supported by Iran. The war has killed more than 10,000 people.

Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Alastair Macdonald, Gareth Jones, Grant McCool