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EUROPEAN UNION

‘Shady characters’: Will EU countries now put an end to ‘golden passport’ schemes?

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine European countries are coming under pressure to end backdoor routes to EU citizenship which are deemed to be unfair and "shady". This week MEPs in the European parliament made their opinions on the scheme clear.

'Shady characters': Will EU countries now put an end to 'golden passport' schemes?
A picture taken on February 14 , 2022 shows national flags of European Union's member countries at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. (Photo by FREDERICK FLORIN / AFP)

The European Parliament on Wednesday called for the phasing out of citizenship by investment programmes operated by some EU countries and for EU-wide regulation on so-called ‘golden visas’ offered to wealthy individuals. 

Such schemes pose a threat to European security and democracy as they can be used “as a backdoor” to the EU for “dirty money”, MEPs argued during the debate.

Members of the European Parliament have been calling for the termination of ‘golden passport’ schemes since 2014, but the issue has become more prominent in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, because of the number of Russian citizens acquiring rights in EU countries through this route in recent years. 

The resolution passed by the parliament with 595 votes to 12 and 74 abstentions says golden passports should be phased out fully. 

The background…

The market of golden passports and visas developed rapidly since the 2008 financial crisis, as countries have sought to incentivise foreign investment

Three EU countries – Bulgaria, Cyprus and Malta – offer citizenship in exchange for a financial investment. Currently, however, Bulgaria is considering a government proposal to end the scheme, Cyprus is only processing applications submitted before November 2020, and Malta has just suspended the processing of applications from Russian citizens.

In addition, 12 EU countries (Cyprus, Estonia, Greece, Spain, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands and Portugal) grant residence permits on the basis of investments, the so-called ‘golden visas’. 

Each national scheme has different rules regarding minimum investment requirements, which range between €60,000 in Latvia and €1.25 million in the Netherlands. These can be through property ownership or contributions to public projects. 

A European parliament study estimates that, from 2011 to 2019, the total investment associated to these schemes has been of €21.4 billion. 42,180 citizenship or residence applications have been approved under such programmes and more than 132,000 people have benefited, including family members of applicants. 

Dutch MEP Sophie IN’t Veld, the European parliament rapporteur, said that “when governments are selling passports or visas, what is actually bringing in the cash is… the little blue and yellow logo on them” – in other words, the EU flag.

‘They are designed for shady business, shady money and shady characters’

Getting citizenship of one EU country of course means the freedom to live and work in all 27 member states, so one country’s passport policy affects everyone in the Bloc. 

Benefits include the right to move to other EU countries, exercise economic activities in the single market, vote and stand as candidates in local and European elections, receive consular protection outside the EU and travel visa-free in many other states around the world. 

Residence also ensures economic rights and the possibility to be joined by family members. 

All this bypassing standard citizenship requirements, which typically involve a period of residence and a “genuine connection” to the country, such as family links, or integration conditions, such as speaking the language and knowing the culture. 

“Passports and golden visa schemes are not about attracting any meaningful legitimate investment in the real economy of Europe. They are designed for shady business, shady money and shady characters,” Sophie IN’t Veld said during the debate.

A picture taken on March 8, 2022 shows European Union’s and Ukrainian flags fluttering outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France. (Photo by Frederick FLORIN / AFP)

Security risks

In an earlier analysis, the European Commission found that such programmes pose risks regarding security, money laundering, tax evasion and corruption due to weak vetting procedures. 

For instance, EU countries offering citizenship by investment usually request clean criminal records from applicants or their country of origin, which are difficult to verify especially in case of a conflict. But Malta can waive the requirement “where the competent authority considers such a certificate impossible to obtain”. 

Cyprus, which is not part of the border-free Schengen area, is not connected to the Schengen Information System that allows member countries to share security information.

In addition, EU member states consult on applications for short-stay visas issued to citizens from certain third countries, but they do not consult for citizenship by investment programmes and do not inform each other of rejected applications, the Commission noted.

Media investigations also highlighted how the schemes have been linked to corruption and crime. Journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered in Malta in 2017 following her investigations into corrupt politicians and money laundering through the citizenship by investment programme, MEPs reminded. 

Brexit-backing billionaire Christopher Chandler, born in New Zealand, was reported to have acquired EU citizenship using the Maltese scheme in 2016.

In 2021 Cyprus revoked the citizenship of 39 foreign investors and 6 members of their families, after it emerged that insufficient background checks had been carried out for over half of the 6,779 passports issued under the scheme between 2007 and 2020. 

‘It is not fair to Ukrainians at this point’

The parliament said on Wednesday that these schemes are “discriminatory and lack fairness” as they contrast “dramatically with the obstacles to seeking international protection, legally migrating or seeking naturalisation through conventional channels”. 

MEPs also called on the European Commission to propose, in 2022, EU-wide regulation on residence by investment schemes. These should include stricter background checks on applicants, their family members and the sources of their funds, minimum residence requirements, investments that truly benefit the economy of the country, and proper scrutiny of intermediaries helping people acquiring rights trough these channels.

“It should not be enough to just buy a house or a villa. The investment must be in the real economy and in line with the climate and social objectives of the Union,” said Sophie IN’t Veld. 

It is “very difficult for small countries whose revenue streams depend on this… I understand it is painful but it is not fair to European citizens, and Ukrainians at this point,” the rapporteur said.

Despite the vote in the European parliament EU powers on this issue remain limited because the rules on the acquisition of citizenship are defined at national level rather than in Brussels. 

The European Commission, however, has already launched a legal action at the European Court of Justice against Cyprus and Malta because “the granting of EU citizenship for pre-determined payments or investments without any genuine link with the member states concerned undermines the essence of EU citizenship”.

What about Russian nationals obtaining golden status?

Russian nationals account for 45 percent of those who have acquired citizenship in EU countries using this route, followed by Chinese nationals and people from the Middle East (15 percent for each group). Chinese investors account for over half of residence permits issued in this way.  

In consideration of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Parliament also appealed EU countries to stop operating citizenship and residency by investment schemes for Russian nationals with immediate effect and to re-assess whether those who benefited in the past have links to the Putin regime. 

In the first round of sanctions against Russia, the leaders of the European Commission, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States committed to “limit the sale of citizenship… that let wealthy Russians connected to the Russian government become citizens… of our countries and gain access to our financial systems.”

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK. 

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BREXIT

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Brexit really does mean that Britons are no longer EU citizens. Claudia Delpero looks at whether there's any other way they can keep their rights.

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Britons lost EU citizenship when the UK left the EU, on 1st February 2020. 

It is the first time the EU’s top court has rules on the matter, after a number of legal cases challenged this specific Brexit outcome. The decision also sets a precedent should other countries decide to leave the bloc in the future. 

What has the EU Court decided?

The Court of Justice decided on a case brought by a British woman living in France.

Before Brexit, she could vote and stand as a candidate in her town of residence, Thoux. But after the UK withdrawal from the EU, she was removed from the electoral roll and excluded from the municipal elections that took place in March 2020, during the transition period.  

As the mayor refused her appeal to restore the registration, she took the case to the regional court in Auch, which agreed to request an interpretation of the rules to the EU top court. 

Julien Fouchet, the barrister supporting her and several other cases on the EU citizenship of British nationals, argued that the loss of EU citizenship and voting rights was disproportionate. It would also be contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, given that the woman also lost her voting rights in the UK, having lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Alice Bouillez, who has lived in France since 1984 and is married to a French national, could have applied for French citizenship, but did not do so because she said “this was not necessary” before Brexit and, as a former UK official, she had taken an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

On Thursday the Court of Justice announced the decision about her case. The court ruled that the “possession of the nationality of a member state is an essential condition for a person to be able to acquire and retain the status of citizen of the Union and to benefit fully from the rights attaching to that status.”

The court therefore confirmed that British nationals automatically lost their EU citizenship as a result of Brexit and, as a consequence, Britons also lost their voting and electoral rights in municipal elections in the EU (unless the country where they live set different rules). 

What is EU citizenship?

EU citizenship was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, when borders were opening and the bloc was integrating economically after the end of the Cold War. 

Under the treaty, every person holding the nationality of an EU member state is a citizen of the Union. EU citizenship is additional and does not replace nationality, the treaty specifies. But this creates the first form of a transnational citizenship that grants rights across borders.

EU citizens have the right to access each other’s territory, job market and services under the principle of non-discrimination. If they are economically active, they have the right to reside in other EU states and be joined by family members, access healthcare at the same conditions of nationals (for emergency treatment also when travelling temporarily), obtain social security benefits and see their professional qualifications recognised.

Beyond free movement, at the core of EU citizenship there are also political rights, such as participating in the European Parliament election, voting and standing as candidates in municipal elections when living in other EU countries, receiving consular protection from other EU states outside the EU, and taking part in European Citizens’ Initiatives asking to the EU to legislate on certain matters. 

Which EU citizenship rights have Britons lost with Brexit? 

For British citizens who were living in the EU before Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement protects some of these rights. Britons covered by deal have their residence, access to work and education, healthcare, social security and qualifications secured, but only in the country where they were living before Brexit.

But the right to free movement in other EU states, consular protection in third countries, and the political rights attached to EU citizenship were lost, the Court confirmed. 

For British citizens in the UK, the trade and cooperation agreement has preserved some social security rights and, in theory, the possibility to have professional qualifications recognized when moving to an EU country. These provisions however lack details and may take a long time before they work in practice. 

As the “European Union” no longer features on British passports, the possibility to access EU lanes at airports to skip passport control queues has also vanished. 

“The loss of those treasured rights has been clear to those of us living in the EU from the early days of Brexit. But for Brits in the UK, the realities of life outside the EU, and the consequences of Brexit, are only just dawning. Long queues at the borders, roaming charges, obstacles to working abroad, etc. are the new reality,” said Sue Wilson, Chair of the group Remain in Spain. 

While she said the court’s decision was “no real surprise,” she argued that “this is not the Brexit the public were promised, or that the majority voted for.”

Can British citizens get some of these rights back?

Julien Fouchet was disappointed at the Court decision and promised to continue the legal fight, bringing the case at the European Court of Human Rights (which is not an EU institution). 

Other two cases on the matter of EU citizenship for British nationals are still pending at the Court of Justice of the EU. One of them aims to determine whether EU citizenship is a “fundamental status” that cannot be removed but Thursday’s decision could have already provided the answer.

Another option to reconsider some of the rights is the renegotiation of EU-UK trade agreement, when it will be reviewed in 2025. 

Meanwhile, the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders. 

Applying for citizenship is so far the only option to regain voting rights, although not all EU countries allow dual nationality. 

Sue Wilson, who has long campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU, said: “There is only one way to restore the loss of our rights, and that’s to rejoin the single market, rejoin the customs union, and eventually, rejoin the European Union… Until that day, we will continue to be second class citizens whose rights have been diminished for the sake of an ideology.”

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