The financial crisis that has gripped much of the European Union (EU) since late 2008 has not deterred non-EU nationals from wanting to settle within its borders. Although the EU has sought to remove internal borders and allow for the free movement of people, good and services, the EU and its member states have also sought to fortify their external borders to stem the flow of people seeking entry into the EU. And yet, while the majority of people seeking entry into the EU face insurmountable obstacles, for those with the financial means, the path to residency and now even citizenship is much easier.
Known as ‘investor citizenship’, ‘citizenship by investment’ or ‘economic citizenship’, a number of states around the world facilitate naturalisation of wealthy individuals who invest in their economies. Within the EU, a number of member states such as the UK, Cyprus, Austria, Ireland, Belgium and Portugal, provide favourable avenues for residency for individuals who invest significant funds in their economies, whether it be through the investment of funds in an existing or new company or through investment in property. For example Belgium provides residency for investors who establish a new company with an office and employment opportunities within Belgium. In Portugal, the Golden Residence Permit for Investment provides residency statues to individuals who invest in Portugal either privately (purchasing of real estate with a minimum value of €500,000) or through a company (providing a minimum of €1 million in capital investment, or through the establishment of a Portuguese company which employs at least 10 people). Although these states provide favourable avenues for residency, investors are still required to comply with established residency and citizenship requirements before they can apply and be granted citizenship of their country of residence. One EU member state, Malta, has however now made the process for entry into the EU all the more accessible for those with the financial means.
In November 2013, Malta’s House of Representatives approved the Individual Investor Programme (IIP) bill, amending the country’s Citizenship Act to allow non-EU nationals to purchase Maltese citizenship through a one off payment of €650,000. This amendment would have allowed an individual the ability to purchase Maltese citizenship without any specific residency requirement restrictions. An individual would neither have been required to settle in Malta for a period of time prior to purchasing his/her citizenship, nor would s/he have been required to remain in Malta for a period of time after the acquisition of Maltese citizenship.
The decision to sell Maltese citizenship without any residency stipulations was met with a chorus of opposition from within Malta and amongst fellow EU member states and the EU. Although national citizenship law remain the jurisdiction of individual EU member states, decisions of individual states have implications for all member states as national citizenship confers EU citizenship and the freedom of movement to live, and work in any EU member state. Thus, by purchasing Maltese citizenship, an individual would also acquire EU citizenship and all the rights associated with it. This would have given the individual the right to freely move and reside in any EU member state; vote for and stand as a candidate in the European Parliament and municipal elections; and be protected by diplomatic and consular authorities of any EU member state. Thus, under the original bill, an individual would have had access to all the rights of Maltese and EU citizenship without any of the responsibilities associated with citizenship to a specific country. Under intense pressure from the European Commission, the Maltese government amended its plans in late January 2014 by introducing an obligatory 12 month residency requirement before Maltese citizenship can be conferred.
The decision of the Maltese government to offer Maltese citizenship for a price is unsettling and sets a precedent for other cash strapped EU member states to resort to using their citizenship as a commodity to be sold to raise revenue and pay off debts. Malta’s scheme will see individuals pay €650,000 for Maltese citizenship, with the option to add children, parents and grandparents for an additional €25,000 to €50,000. At present, Malta has indicated that the scheme will be capped at 1,800 main applicants, which at a minimum will net the country €1.17 billion. For a country struggling to meet its debt repayment, such a scheme might seem very attractive.
Malta’s actions also illustrate significant issues over the unity of purpose between EU member states. It has demonstrated the consequences of an EU member state making a national decision without consultation or consideration of the consequences on other EU member states. At a time when EU member states are continually placing national interests above greater European integration, the implications of Malta’s decision are far reaching.
The decision of Malta to sell its citizenship is also disconcerting when we look at the other spectrum of individuals seeking entry into the EU. For refugees and asylum seekers, Europe offers a haven for those seeking refugee from war, persecution and poverty. On an almost daily basis we hear of reports of boats overloaded with refugees from Africa taking the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. These individuals place themselves in the most perilous situation for the chance of a better life in Europe. They use whatever money they have, which is often their life savings (and/or those of their family) to pay people smugglers to take the journey to Europe. For them, the path to Europe is paved with sacrifice and for some even death. If lucky enough to reach one of the EU’s member states, the future for these refugees remains uncertain. They face the risk of deportation, years in detention camps or in shanty towns struggling to make ends meet. As EU member states wrangle over who should be responsible for dealing with the influx of refugees from Africa and the Middle East these individuals continue to face an uncertain future while the path for individuals with the means continue to become easier.
Although Malta has now instituted a twelve-month residency requirement, it is still worrying that individuals with the financial means are able to jump the queue by buying their way into the EU. Individuals who follow the established residency and citizenship path of each EU member state, who contribute to the day to day life of their society, who have invested themselves within their community are forced to wait and follow the established laws before applying for citizenship. At the other end of the spectrum, refugees and asylum seekers who risk their lives for a better future for themselves and their families find themselves treated as third class citizens and granted little human dignity in their bid for a chance at a better future. Founded “on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”, the EU member states must to take a long and hard look at how they determine who is worthy of becoming a citizen. These values which are at the heart of the EU should be universally applied to all individuals seeking a home within the borders of the EU, regardless of their financial situation.