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EU citizenship for sale

Shora Azarnoush / cjcJuly 28, 2014

EU countries have long offered preferential visas to wealthy foreigners looking to park their money, but now that system has taken on a life of its own. Requisites for gaining access to 'Fortress Europe' are vanishing.

Hafen von La Valetta Malta
Image: Fotolia/schneiderpics

They come to Europe for a better life, for freedom. But rather than cram themselves into a boat alongside a hundred other refugees, they fly business class.

Their destination? Malta, Portugal or Spain - countries that have recently intensified efforts to attract wealthy foreign nationals with promises of citizenship in exchange for investments in the local economy.

Britain was one of the first European countries to naturalize well-to-do foreigners, but recently it has been countries that are still recovering from the debt crisis that have had the largest appetite for new citizens.

As these fragile economies compete for foreign capital, the cost and requirements for attaining citizenship are lower than ever.

'Golden visa'

"It's important to distinguish between the 'golden visa,' which is an investor program that streamlines the immigration process for wealthy foreign nationals, and the so-called "citizenship for sale" program, which involves the sale of nationalities," Katharina Eisele, a researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, told DW.

Just last year, the Maltese government proposed what it called the "Individual Investor Program," under which foreigners could obtain Maltese citizenship for a fixed sum.

Impoverished refugees also pay dearly to gain access to Europe, often it costs their livesImage: Reuters

Other European Union member states were quick to react. Critics argued the program was effectively a backdoor to the bloc which would allow certain people to bypass immigration regulations.

Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, maintained prospective citizens must have at least some affiliation with the country in question before they can be awarded citizenship.

In Malta's case, EU law prevented Malta from naturalizing any immigrants who had not lived in the country for at least 12 months.

Half a million euros for a passport

Malta is no longer an isolated case. Portugal, Spain, Cyprus and Bulgaria have all introduced their own immigration programs for investors in recent years. Spain and Portugal refer to their programs as "golden visas."

In Portugal, all it takes is buying a piece of real estate worth at least 500,000 euros. An applicant must then spend seven days inside Portugal in the first year and 14 days inside the country in the second year in order to qualify for a permanent residency permit after five years.

Once the sixth year goes by, investors can apply for Portugese citizenship. From that moment on, there are no regulations as to where they must park their capital.

If that route to citizenship doesn't appeal to an investor, he or she can always transfer a million euros to an account at a Portugese bank or start a company with at least 30 employees. Both of these actions are sufficient to earn him or her a passport.

But there is one glaring error with the way Portugal is trying to attract capital and create jobs, according to a report last April in the Publico newspaper. Not a single visa has been awarded to an investor who actually created new jobs in the country.

Eisele, the researcher, said she found it remarkable that citizenship suddenly has a price at all - something that unavoidably creates a system in which wealthy foreigners are treated more favorably than poorer ones.

"It's discriminatory against people who are less wealthy," Eisele said.

Expensive visas as a crisis strategy

Portugal began awarding its "golden visas" in October 2012, when the country was still grappling with the eurozone debt crisis.

The positive impact of Lisbon's visa program on the real estate market in Portugal is already visible.

The country awarded 580 "golden visas" in 2013 and that number doubled in the first six months of 2014, according to Vanessa Lima, a marketing coordinator at the real estate firm Portugal Property.

"Asia is the region we're concentrating on at the moment," Lima said. "It accounts for a significant proportion of the requests we receive."

The last company trip was to Vietnam, where Lima said two "golden visa" contracts were signed in a week.