By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union foreign ministers approved economic sanctions, including an arms embargo, on Venezuela on Monday, saying regional elections last month marred by reported irregularities had deepened the country's crisis.
Anxious not to push Caracas any closer to economic and political collapse as debt restructuring talks begin, EU governments held back from targeting any individuals.
The bloc instead left names for a later stage to try to persuade President Nicholas Maduro to calm the situation.
"Everything we do is aimed at seeking dialogue between the government and the opposition to find a democratic and peaceful solution," Spain's Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis told reporters at a meeting with his counterparts where the sanctions decision was made.
Venezuelan opposition leaders said last week they would resume efforts to hold a dialogue with Maduro, even though they say he previously used such talks to stall for time instead of implementing serious reform.
Over the weekend, Maduro had termed imminent sanctions by the bloc as "stupid."
On Monday, his government said the "illegal" and "absurd" EU measures were a violation of international norms.
"The European institutions show their lamentable and shameful subordination to the U.S. government," it added.
Spain has long pushed for sanctions on those close to Maduro, whom Washington accuses of installing a dictatorship and slapped sanctions on in July. But the EU has been divided over whom to target.
The arms embargo adds Venezuela to an EU list that includes North Korea and Syria, where European defence companies can no longer do business and to which the sale of any goods deemed as being used for repression are also banned.
Britain sold 1.4 million pounds worth of arms to Venezuela between May 2010 and March 2017, according to The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), which lobbies to end arms sales to repressive governments.
"GRADUAL AND FLEXIBLE" SANCTIONS
In a joint statement, all 28 EU ministers said the legal basis for individual travel bans to the EU and the freezing of any Venezuelan assets in the bloc "will be used in a gradual and flexible manner and can be expanded."
Representatives of Maduro's government were due to meet investors in Caracas on Monday to discuss renegotiating $60 billion in foreign debt.
Some EU governments want to give former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the EU's main envoy for Venezuela, another chance to try negotiations despite unsuccessful efforts in 2016.
But in the statement, ministers said regional elections held in Venezuela on Oct. 15 were a turning point that had hardened the bloc's position, having taken place amid "reported numerous irregularities."
The results appeared to favour Maduro's ruling Socialists, while polls had suggested the opposition would easily win a majority. In the end it won only a handful of governorships, according to the pro-government electoral board.
EU ministers will decide whom to target with sanctions at a later stage, but said they would focus on security forces and government ministers and institutions accused of human rights violations and the non-respect of democratic principles or the rule of law.
Experts say individual U.S. sanctions spearheaded by U.S. President Donald Trump, while providing strong symbolism, have had little or no impact on Maduro's policies and that oil-sector and financial sanctions may be the only way to force the Venezuelan government to change.
(Reporting by Robin Emmottadditional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne and Andreina Aponte in Caracasediting by Rosalba O'Brien and Jonathan Oatis)