Spanish MEPs clash over minister’s meeting with Venezuelan vice-president

President of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro leaves a meeting with the President of the ruling National Constituent Assembly (ANC) Delcy Rodriguez (R), the Attorney General Tarek Saab (2L), and the President of the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) Magistrate Maikel Moreno (L), in Caracas, Venezuela, 04 May 2018. [Cristian Hernandez/EFE]

Spanish MEPs held a heated debate in the European Parliament on Tuesday (11 February) over whether the EU should bring Spain to heel over the country’s violation of EU sanctions against Venezuela.

A Spanish-dominated chamber in Strasbourg held furious exchanges over a controversial meeting which took place at Madrid’s airport in January between Spanish Transport Minister José Luis Ábalos and Venezuelan vice-president Delcy Rodríguez, who is subject to an EU travel ban.

After several communications mishaps and contradictory versions, Ábalos finally admitted having met the Venezuelan minister, but only to inform her that she could not stay on Spanish territory because of the EU-wide ban.

The EU adopted a set of sanction against Maduro’s regime back in 2017, following the humanitarian and political deterioration of the situation in Venezuela. Member states have reinforced the decision ever since.

The sanctions included arms and security forces equipment exports ban but also assets freeze and travel bans imposed on members of the government.

Delcy Rodríguez was blacklisted after being appointed as Maduro’s second-in-command following his reelection in a 2018 vote that the EU considered not free or fair.

However, EU’s the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, former Spanish chief diplomat Josep Borrell, argued that the European Commission has no competence on the matter.

Borrell recalled that EU countries “are responsible in all cases for the implementation and the verification of sanctions adopted by the EU in their own jurisdictions” and therefore, it is their duty to investigate a possible breach of those.

However, he argued that while the EU executive “has an overall role concerning the monitoring of the application of such measures,” this does not include travel bans or arms embargos.

“The Commission cannot initiate any infringement procedure regarding a possible travel ban violation,” he claimed.

“We can discuss the political appropriateness for member states to give this competence to the EU, although this would require a treaty change,” Borrell added.

Borrell admitted, however, that he is responsible for ensuring the bloc’s cohesive foreign affairs policy, including on sanctions. Therefore, he said, he was in close contact with EU leaders “to ensure that these sanctions are being applied in a homogeneous way in all member states.”

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Spanish fight in Parliament

The debate in Parliament was not about the EU’s capacity to make sure member states respect the sanctions agreed by the bloc, but on the Spanish government’s mismanagement of the situation and its position towards Venezuela.

According to Spanish site Voz Populi, minister Abalos met Maduro’s aid on a private jet coming from Caracas during a stopover in Madrid. Abalos claimed he was there to greet  the Venezuelan Tourism minister and had no “formal contact” with Rodríguez. But after a series of contradictory versions, he said he only informed her that she could not step in Spanish territory because of the EU-wide ban.

But the statement did not alleviate concerns from the Spanish conservative opposition which insisted to include the issue on the agenda of the Parliament’s plenary session in Strasbourg. With nine out of ten speakers coming from the country, the debate was dominated by a heated spat between Spanish MEPs.

“It is Sánchez’s government who has opened Europe’s doors to ‘Chavism’,” MEP Dolors Montserrat claimed during her intervention in Tuesday’s debate.

“Sanchez’s government not only has failed to uphold the rules, but he is also lying,” Monserat added, calling on the EU to investigate the matter. “The truth needs to be known and the sanctions regime must be enforced,” she said.

Jordi Cañas from the centrist Renew Europe group, accused Borrell of speaking not as High Representative but as a “former minister of Sánchez” who still supports the left-wing government in Madrid. “This is not a national debate but a debate on the legitimacy of the EU foreign policy and the respect of this chamber,” Cañas argued.

In return, the ruling socialists attacked the opposition for bringing to the European scene what they consider a national issue.

Cristina Maestre, a socialist MEP, asked Monserat if she thought it was okay “to use the European Parliament as an instrument to attack the Spanish government knowing that this chamber does not have any competence in that matter.”

Ernest Urtasun, an MEP from the Greens/EFA group, even apologised to colleagues for taking the space for a national debate and called on members to be responsible. “We have a lot of work to do,” he said.

“To be perfectly honest with you, I think these sort of debates actually undermines the image of the Spanish delegation in the Parliament,” he added.

On closing remarks, Borrell repeated his introductory statement almost word by word and stressed once again that the Commission has no authority on the matter and no capacity to open infringement procedures.

“You are MEPs, you should know that. Are you surprised? Then you should study more,” he added.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Frédéric Simon]

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