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Passports for sale in EU corruption risk

© OCCRP
© OCCRP

A consortium of investigative journalists disclosed on Monday a series of case studies of Golden Visa programmes in EU member states. The programmes allow non-EU citizens to circumvent national citizenship rules and to buy residency permits and citizenship by investing large sums in property or businesses. Reporters have during the last half year investigated the Golden Visa programmes in a number of EU Member States. The cases studies were published by the Organised Crime and Corruption Project (OCCRP) in cooperation with Transparency International and Global Witness.

In one or another form, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Portugal, United Kingdom and candidate country Montenegro have all offered Golden Visa schemes with investments ranging from €250,000 to €10 million.

For some of the countries the programmes have provided much needed money but the cost-benefit of them isn’t clear in all cases. Public protest in for example Portugal has been effective and in Hungary, where the fees for applying went to an off-shore company, the programme has been put on hold.

According to the reporting, the Golden Visa programmes have turned into a billion euro industry on show in international expos but are still shrouded in secrecy. Someone who acquires a passport from a member state becomes also an EU citizen with access to other countries and the Schengen area.

“As this is a growing industry which is currently unregulated it’s likely it could move to other member states,” Rachel Owens, head of EU Advocacy at Global Witness, tells The Brussels Time. “The impacts are felt by all member states as freedom of movement allows people who get visas or passports to travel freely.”

The consortium of journalists regard the Golden Visa programmes as an EU-wide issue and calls on the European Commission to act swiftly to ensure the transparency of the programmes.

It might not be possible to forbid the programmes – as granting citizenship is a national competency – but they should be regulated because of the risks they pose to all EU, according to the consortium.

As a minimum, the Commission should issue guidelines to the member states to carry out enhanced due diligence checks to prevent criminals from misusing the programmes and to reduce the risks of tax evasion, money laundering and corruption. Global Witness has listed a number of checks that should be adopted as European standards.

A spokesperson for the Commission confirmed (5 March) that the Commission has been monitoring some of the involved countries, such as Malta and Cyprus, and has launched a study on the Golden Visa programmes.

Following the press conference, the consortium of journalists met EU officials to discuss the issue.

“We had a very fruitful meeting with representatives of the Commission,” says Owens. “We were assured that corruption risks will be taken into account in its fact finding study of practices in member states and expect it to be ready by end 2018.”

The political environment has changed since the Golden Visa programme in Malta first surfaced, she adds. But at this stage it’s not clear if the Commission report will also consider different policy options. “We believe binding EU action is necessary but as a first step the Commission should issue guidelines on the checks member states should carry out.”

M.Apelblat
The Brussels Times

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