Thursday, 14 November 2013

EU citizenship for sale

As the holder of an EU passport through some arcane and perhaps undeserved reasons (ancestry), I’m often asked by my fellow Americans how they too can get in on this European action. For me it’s been an incredible asset, to hold both EU and American citizenship, and I know many people in America who would cut off their right arm to have the right to come and work in Europe for awhile.

Well Americans, today’s your lucky day. This week the Maltese Parliament approved a measure that would allow anyone to purchase Maltese citizenship for the low low price of €650,000 ($875,000). What a bargain!

When Europe’s media got wind of this news yesterday, people were scandalized. This tiny island nation of 450,000 people is part of the EU and therefore a holder of a Maltese passport would have the right to live and work anywhere in the union. They would have the right to free healthcare throughout Europe and free/reduced tuition at any of Europe’s universities. And they would benefit from visa-free travel arrangements between the EU and the United States.

Malta would be the first country to allow people to purchase citizenship - something the Maltese government has tried to obfuscate by making some disingenuous comparisons. Other countries such as Portugal and Austria allow people to ‘purchase’ residency by making a property purchase above a certain threshold. But they then still have to go through the normal process of acquiring citizenship like anyone else, having to be in the country a certain amount of time (in Portugal’s case, six years).

A residency permit only gives a person the right to work in that particular country. Though they can travel to the rest of the EU without restrictions, they cannot work there. So other EU member states are obviously less concerned about purchased residency.

What has shocked Europeans even more is that apparently the European Commission, the EU’s executive, is powerless to do anything about this. A spokesman for Cecilia Malmstrom, the Commissioner for home affairs, told journalists yesterday “member states have full sovereignty to decide to whom and how they grant their nationality.” He said the European high court has confirmed this several times, and there is nothing the EU can do.

Now obviously €650,000 is an obscene amount of money for a passport. When you think about it, someone with that kind of cash is probably able to ‘grease the wheels’ a bit for acquiring citizenship in whatever member state they actually want to live in. But Malta’s prime minister Joseph Muscat told the maltese Parliament this week that he estimates the new programme will net the state around €30 million euros in the first year – meaning he expects at least 46 applicants. He said he expects 200 to 300 applicants in later years.

Muscat claims the goal is to attract “high value” citizens to the small island nation. However it seems pretty clear that the purchasers are not buying the passport in order to live and work in Malta. This therefore becomes an issue of high interest to other member states.

For the moment, the idea that a few hundred millionaires are going to buy EU citizenship may not seem so alarming. After all, Europe might be happy to have them. But what kind of precedent is this setting? Could any member state now start selling their passport in vast numbers in order to make some quick cash?

What if Greece started selling passports for €2,000 a pop to people they know have no intention of actually living in Greece? The Greek government could start contacting Turkish people in Germany, or Moroccans in France, and see if they might be interested in acquiring a more permanent arrangement in the country they call home. Apparently, we learned this week, Greece’s EU partners and the Commission would be powerless to stop this.

It’s an interesting development in EU freedom of movement, that’s for sure.

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