The nature of EU citizenship is being changed by a global industry that targets rich people, according to some people in Europe.
“We are all citizens of a nation state,but also of the EU,” says German Green Party MEP, Sven Giegold. “They are commercialising something that should not be a commodity,” he tells The Irish Times. “The right to become a citizen is earned by integration into society, and not by money. The whole concept is flawed.”
Ireland’s is one of 20 EU states that offer wealthy would-be immigrants access to a residency visa in return for a substantial investment. Three member states – Bulgaria, Cyprus and Malta – sell citizenship.
The Irish Immigrant Investor Programme was introduced in 2012 in the aftermath of the economic crash but has only taken off in recent years. It now receives hundreds of applications every year.
The Irish scheme is part of a phenomenon that has raised concerns at European Commission level about security and the changing nature of EU citizenship
The Irish scheme is open to citizens from outside the European Economic Area who are seeking Irish residency status – for just themselves, or for themselves and their partner and children. Residents may live and work in Ireland, travel freely to and from the country and travel between the UK and Ireland. To travel in the EU’s Schengen Area they have to get a visa from one of the member states of that area.
Immigrant investors are not required to live in Ireland – just to visit one day a year. They are not entitled to hold an Irish passport or to vote. Successful applicants are granted residency rights in Ireland for two years, subject to renewal at three-year and five-year intervals. Citizenship and passport rights must be applied for separately, with the usual residency conditions prior to application having to be met.
So far in 2019, the Immigrant Investor Programme has approved 296 applications, following a pause during which enhanced controls – including personal and financial checks – were introduced on the applicants and the source of their wealth.
To qualify for Irish residency, an applicant must be worth at least €2 million, and the money that is invested cannot be borrowed.
The Irish scheme is part of a phenomenon that has raised concerns at European Commission level about security and the changing nature of EU citizenship. The commission is also concerned that non-EU countries, such as Turkey and Montenegro, which hope to join the EU, are running or contemplating “golden citizenship” schemes that give successful applicants the right to visit the EU and travel freely in the Schengen zone.
‘You come into citizenship through a different door, the investment door. The world’s changing’
“It’s massive for some countries,” says Paul Williams, chief executive and founder of La Vida Golden Visas, a London-based business that markets investor immigration schemes. “If you look at Dominica, [selling citizenship] accounts for half of their gross domestic product.”
Only certain international agents are allowed to promote the Dominican programme, and La Vida is one of them. An individual can buy a passport from the Caribbean republic for $100,000, or pay $400,000 for passports for a family of four.
At one stage Dominica placed restrictions on applications from certain countries including Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, but it will now consider applicants from any country.
Citizenship of Dominica allows for visa-free travel to more than 137 countries, including the UK and the EU Schengen zone.
The huge growth in such investor programmes has changed the nature of citizenship, says Williams, who founded his company in 2013. “You come into citizenship through a different door, the investment door. The world’s changing, and the way that we do things in terms of business, and the internet and mobile communications, has changed everything.
“We are no longer stuck in that sort of physical world of governments necessarily being able to control everything the way they were able to in the past.”
Williams, who is involved with a Geneva-based industry body called the Investment Migration Council, says there are “seven or so MEPs” that have turned the European Parliament and commission against immigrant investment programmes, but that the industry has woken up and said, “you’ve got this all wrong”.
Investor citizenship and residency schemes have nothing to do with tax, or money laundering, or terrorism, he says. For the best schemes, the programmes are part of a wider project aimed at encouraging investment and economic activity.
A report published by the European Commission in January noted that the citizenship schemes operated by Bulgaria, Cyprus and Malta offer access to an EU passport without effective prior residence being required.
“Such schemes have implications for the European Union as a whole, as every person holding the nationality of a member state is at the same time a citizen of the union,” the commission report says.
‘The right to live and work in nice countries like Ireland, are one of the great privileges of being a citizen of a western country. So we sell that. I find that very troubling, personally’
“Indeed, although these are national schemes, they are deliberately marketed and often explicitly advertised as a means of acquiring union citizenship, together with all the rights and privileges associated with it, including in particular the right to free movement.”
The Hungarian residency scheme, which was suspended in 2017, required investors to put €300,000 in a government bond. But these bonds were issued by private companies based in the Cayman Islands, Malta, Cyprus, Russia, Hungary and Singapore. The lack of transparency about who was profiting from the scheme was among the issues that led to its suspension.
Oliver Bullough, author of Moneyland, a critical book about the provision of financial and other services to the rich, believes golden citizenship and residency schemes are prone to corruption, and by their nature problematic.
“If you are a wealthy Chinese citizen you can apply to a programme in Ireland or Portugal, and gain access to things that ordinary Chinese people can’t. Or you can buy a passport in Cyprus or Malta, and the same thing happens. These rights, the right to live and work in nice countries like Ireland, are one of the great privileges of being a citizen [or resident] of a western country. So we sell that. I find that very troubling, personally.”
Golden visa and golden citizenship schemes are devaluing the whole concept of citizenship, he says.
According to Williams, the delays that occurred late last year and earlier this year as Ireland introduced enhanced controls created a bad impression.
“We’ve done a few Irish [cases]. It’s very good, because of the EU connection. The benefit is that it is an English-speaking, EU country. It’s attractive in that way.”
However the administrative delays meant it has “lost a lot of its direction and appeal, to be honest. So we have kind of eased back on it. But I think it’s a very good programme, and is set up in a way that benefits the economy, unlike the one here in the UK.”
Williams does not deal with investors from mainland China. “Mainland China likes to deal with companies that are based there. So it’s a market that we’re not hugely into.”
Among the problems with the market are the controls that China has imposed on how much money a citizen can take out of the country. “You can’t send a million euro straight out of China. You have to have a wide circle of friends to send the money across, different family members, so it’s a complicated market to get money out of.”
Irish solicitor Denis McGettigan, an immigration specialist with Gibson & Associates, says the bulk of the Chinese investors applying for the Irish programme are from Hong Kong, or are people who already have substantial assets outside mainland China.
Under the Irish scheme, an investment of €1 million in an enterprise, bond or fund, or a €2 million investment in a real-estate investment trust that is quoted on the Irish Stock Exchange, is required.
Parker has noticed a rise in applicants from India, driven by Brexit but also by the leadership of Fine Gael. ‘Leo Varadkar is a big selling card in India’
An alternative is to make a €500,000 donation to a registered charity. Smaller donations, of €400,000 each, can be made by groups of five or more investors.
McGettigan says he is currently in negotiation with a Chinese investor he is hoping will donate €500,000 to a Co Donegal GAA club. It’s important, he says, to look at the benefits as well as the risks associated with the scheme.
In August, the Department of Justice and Equality issued a notice saying it was not acceptable that charities should have to make payments in return for receiving donations, or that agents should be paid a finder’s fee from the donations.
McGettigan says he was not entirely surprised. “We have been approached by clients asking if some of the [charitable donation] could come back to them, maybe down the road some time. The answer has always been no.”
His firm takes a fee and that’s it, he says. “I can understand why charities might want to do it, get €400,000 in the back pocket, and the other €100,000 has to go somewhere else. I can understand that.” Such practices can be reported, and stamped out, he said.
The housing campaigner David Hall says the charity he founded, iCare, has an application with the department on behalf of five Chinese investors who between them propose to donate €2 million, which would be used for social housing.
The proposal does not involve a return payment to the investors or their agent, but he believes the department is mistaken in how it views such practices.
There are lots of companies out there that organise charity balls in return for a percentage of the takings. The same applies with scratch cards. “It’s not easy to raise money,” he said. “This is free money.”
Michael Parker, managing director of Insight Consultants, which acts for applicants, believes the Irish scheme has been hugely improved in the past year, with a better focus on where investment money has to go.
The programme now directs money into four areas: social housing; primary healthcare; climate action; and nursing homes. This means these priority areas can get access to funding at a cost that they might not otherwise be able to. In the US, he says, the immigrant investor scheme brings in a massive $10 billion every year.
Parker has noticed a rise in applicants from India, driven by Brexit but also by the leadership of Fine Gael. “Leo Varadkar is a big selling card in India.”
An anti-immigrant atmosphere in the UK, and fears about accessing the EU market, are causing wealthy Indian investors who would be interested in setting up businesses to trade in the EU, to look at Ireland.
More than half a billion euro has been invested since the scheme was introduced in 2012, with the bulk of that occurring in the past number of years. “It’s delivering on jobs and investment,” says Parker.