MADRID (AFP) - Spain, France and Germany gave embattled Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro an ultimatum ahead of an UN Security Council meeting on Saturday (Jan 26), saying they would recognise opposition leader Juan Guaido as president unless he calls elections within eight days.
The ultimatum comes as international pressure mounts on the Maduro regime to agree to a new vote, after the United States, Canada and major South American players recognised
Mr Guaido, who proclaimed himself acting president of Venezuela during massive street rallies this week.
After four years of economic pain that has left Venezuelans short of food and medicine and driven more than two million to flee, Mr Guaido is trying to oust Mr Maduro following controversial elections that saw the socialist leader sworn in for a second term.
"If within eight days there are no fair, free and transparent elections called in Venezuela, Spain will recognise Juan Guaido as Venezuelan president" so that he himself can call such polls, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said in a televised announcement.
French President Emmanuel Macron followed suit in a tweet, saying "the Venezuelan people must be able to freely decide on their future," as did German government spokeswoman Martina Fietz.
Mr Guaido quickly welcomed the support from the European powerhouses.
"There continues to be progress in the European Union for the recognition and full support of our legitimate and constitutional struggle," he tweeted.
The United Kingdom later followed suit, with British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt saying in a statement on Twitter that: “After banning opposition candidates, ballot box stuffing and counting irregularities in a deeply flawed election, it is clear (president) Nicolas Maduro is not the legitimate leader of Venezuela. @jguaido is the right person to take Venezuela forward.
“If there are not fresh & fair elections announced within eight days, UK will recognise him as interim president to take forward the political process towards democracy. Time for a new start for the suffering ppl (people) of Venezuela.”
The coordinated announcements are the most explicit yet from European countries as the EU struggles to draft a joint statement with regards to its position on the crisis in Venezuela.
For his part, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will on urge UN Security Council members at a Saturday meeting to recognise Mr Guaido as interim president, the State Department said.
Spain had wanted the EU to take a tough line on Mr Maduro by calling for immediate elections, failing which it wanted the bloc as a whole to recognise Mr Guaido, the 35-year-old head of Venezuela's National Assembly.
But countries like Austria, Greece and Portugal are much more reluctant.
Greece's ruling party Syriza has publicly backed Mr Maduro, with party secretary Panos Skourletis voicing "full support and solidarity" to what to he called "the legal president".
Mr Maduro also has the support of Russia, whose foreign minister Sergei Lavrov denounced US policy on Venezuela as "destructive".
Mr Sanchez insisted that Spain, which has some 200,000 of its nationals living in Venezuela, is "not looking to impose or remove governments in Venezuela, we want democracy and free elections in Venezuela."
Mr Maduro's re-election last year was contested by the opposition and rejected by the US, EU and UN as a sham - but he has until now retained the loyalty of the powerful military.
Mr Guaido, who has managed to galvanise a previously divided opposition, this week attempted to attract military support by offering an amnesty to anyone who disavows Mr Maduro, with no luck so far.
In a Skype interview with Univision late Thursday he went one step further by suggesting Mr Maduro could be offered amnesty if he agrees to step down.
He has however rejected an offer of talks with Mr Maduro, saying he won't attend a "fake dialogue" on a crisis that has left 26 dead in clashes this week between anti-Maduro activists and security forces.
Mr Guaido has also called for a "major demonstration".
Mr Maduro, for his part, called for a "popular rebellion against the coup" on the streets of Venezuela.
The Inter-American Human Rights Commission late Friday issued a statement warning that Mr Guaido's life and health were in danger given the high political tension in the country.
Washington's support for Mr Guaido led Mr Maduro to close the US embassy and consulates and break diplomatic ties.
US diplomats in Venezuela have until Saturday to leave the country, but Washington has refused to fully comply fully with the exit order.
Mr Guaido is instead urging the US diplomats to stay and keep the embassy's doors open.