The EU has dropped its de facto recognition of Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, a serious diplomatic setback to the opposition leader’s faltering campaign to oust Nicolás Maduro from power.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc deeply regretted that the new government-controlled Venezuelan National Assembly had assumed its mandate on Tuesday after recent elections that “failed to comply with the international standards for a credible process”.

But his statement referred to Mr Guaidó as one of “the political and civil society actors striving to bring back democracy to Venezuela”, rather than as interim president or as head of the assembly.

A senior EU diplomat confirmed that the declaration amounted to dropping recognition for Mr Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela, though he emphasised that Europe still saw him as a “primus inter pares” among the Venezuelan opposition.

Mr Guaidó’s claim to be Venezuela’s interim president was based on his position as president of the 2015 National Assembly, chosen in elections widely regarded as Venezuela’s last truly democratic contest. The opposition leader declared himself interim president at the start of 2019, saying that Mr Maduro’s 2018 re-election was fraudulent.

About 60 western and Latin American countries, led by the US, recognised Mr Guaidó as president and some even allowed him to appoint ambassadors to their nations and occupy Venezuelan diplomatic premises. But Mr Guaidó never got his hands on the levers of power at home, which remained tightly controlled by Mr Maduro and his allies.

The EU had never formally recognised Mr Guaidó as interim president because of objections from Italy and Cyprus, but had treated him as such de facto, a position supported by a majority of member states.

In a further blow, the Lima Group of 12 mainly Latin American nations issued a statement on Tuesday that did not mention Mr Guaidó as interim president, though it did say it recognised a “delegate commission” set up by the outgoing national assembly under Mr Guaidó.

“My reading is that this is an oblique way of recognising Guaidó’s leadership [of the opposition] but not his interim presidency,” one Latin American diplomat said.

Mr Guaidó’s office said the Lima Group “continued to keep their support for President Guaidó” and pointed to its support for the delegate commission.

The US for now is continuing to recognise Mr Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, though it remains unclear whether the incoming Biden administration will continue with this particular Trump-era policy when it takes office later this month.

“President Guaidó and the National Assembly are the only democratic representatives of the Venezuelan people as recognised by the international community”, Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said in a statement on Tuesday.

But the European decision will come as a major blow to Mr Guaidó, who is already struggling with falling opinion poll ratings, a fresh government clampdown and disagreements over strategy within his opposition alliance.