For the first time, the European Commission is sounding the alarm when it comes to European countries that offer citizenship or the right of residence in return for significant financial investments. A practice that particularly benefits organised crime, according to Brussels.
The age of the golden visa may be coming to an end after the European Commission criticised the the controversial practice in a report released today.
“Investor citizenship and residence schemes create a range of risks for Member States and for the Union as a whole: in particular, risks to security, including the possibility of infiltration of non-EU organised crime groups, as well as risks of money laundering, corruption and tax evasion,” warn the report’s authors.
These passports or visas for sale could, in the eyes of the European Commission, act as Trojan horses for Russian, Chinese or other crime groups to launder their money in the EU.
And it’s not just a theoretical risk. After the Skripal affair, London decided to review the issuance of 7,000 “golden” visas to Russians. In 2014, in Portugal, Miguel Macedo, then Minister of the Interior, had to resign after being accused of having granted “golden visas” to Brazilian nationals related to corruption cases.
According to calculations by Global Witness and Transparency International, around 100,000 wealthy people, mostly Russian or Chinese, have bought valuable European citizenship or residency in the last decade, although there are is no precise data.
This lucrative trade-off is estimated to have have brought about 25 billion euros in direct investment to the countries concerned. Candidates have paid between just under €10,000 to more than €5 million to become European citizens or have the right to move freely within the Schengen area as residents.
Three countries – Cyprus, Malta and Bulgaria – sell passports directly, while seventeen others – including France and the United Kingdom – offer the possibility of buying resident visas, enabling them to stay for a period 4 to 10 years, said the European Commission.
In Cyprus, you need to invest at least €2 million in the country and own real estate, while in Malta a candidate for citizenship has to pay €650, 000 into a national investment fund, as well as a contribution of at least €150,000 euros to the local economy and the purchase of a house or apartment. Other countries, such as France, the Czech Republic or the Netherlands, also require the creation of a minimum number of jobs to obtain a resident visa.
In theory, criminals should not be able to benefit from the scheme; however, the control procedures often leave much to be desired, according to the European Commission.
Many NGOs believe that the European Commission has not gone far enough in its initiative against the visa and passport business, despite promising to establish, in 2019, a “group of experts from Member States” to provide accurate data on applications received and countries of origin of applicants.
The problem is that the granting of citizenship and the right of residence is a national matter. Europe is reluctant to venture into this field, fearing that it could reinforces the euroskeptic discourse of populist parties, who bemoan Brussels’ ‘interference’ in national policy making.
A few months before the European elections in May 2019, it is probably not a coincidence that the authors of the European Commission’s report repeatedly insist on the importance they attach to the idea that citizenship is a prerogative of Member States. But in the absence of concrete measures, transparency advocates are left in doubt as to whether the Commission’s efforts will really put an end to the gold rush for European visas.