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Ending corrupt abuse of EU golden passports & visas

Those who loot their countries cannot be allowed safe haven in the EU.

The problem

Golden passport and visa schemes have turned European Union (EU) citizenship and residency rights into a luxury good: with enough money, anyone can buy in. This is a particularly attractive prospect for criminals and the corrupt – and numerous scandals have proven they are taking advantage. These EU golden passport and visa schemes are not about genuine investment or migration – but about serving corrupt interests.

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Our solution

Golden passport schemes need to be banned. Golden visa schemes must be regulated with adequate checks in place.

We have been calling on the European Commission to harmonise rules across the EU and stop the abuses by requiring that EU governments make significant reforms to the schemes and conduct enhanced due diligence on applicants and their money. New rules should also require private sector intermediaries to adhere to anti-money laundering obligations.

Past mistakes cannot be forgotten with reform. Governments should review previously awarded golden passports and visas, and the European Commission should oversee the process of revoking citizenship or residency from those who should have never received it in the first place.

Check out our 2018 report with Global Witness

European Getaway

Where we are now

In 2019, the European Commission acknowledged that golden passport and visa schemes pose inherent corruption and money laundering risks – but wasn’t taking sufficient action against them.

Three years later, in March 2022, the European Parliament proposed a significant revamp of EU investment migration schemes, echoing Transparency International’s positions. But the Commission has yet to respond.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has once again brought this issue to the forefront as reportedly half of the issued passports have gone to Russians – including those like the sanctioned billionaire Oleg Deripaska. Member states who have been blocking EU-wide reform are out of excuses.

Check out a related campaign

Countering Russia’s kleptocrats

How we got here

March

9 March. The European Parliament adopts a report which proposes a significant revamp of EU investment migration schemes, echoing Transparency International’s positions.

Members of the European Parliament have now said, loud and clear, that inaction is unacceptable and called for key fixes – such as introducing minimum physical residency requirements for applicants and prioritising “productive investments in the real economy”.

Our statement

24 March. Bulgaria announces the end of its golden passport scheme.

28 March. The European Commission issues a recommendation urging Member States to act against golden passport and visa schemes, and to take immediate steps in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

September

The Commission refers Malta to the EU Court of Justice for its continued refusal to end its golden passport investor citizenship scheme.

The Commission has shown its commitment to ending individual citizenship-for-sale schemes, with some success as Cyprus and Bulgaria stopped their programmes in recent years. But it has yet to respond to calls, including from Transparency International and the European Parliament, to completely ban golden passports and mandate specific rules for residence-by-investment schemes.

Our statement

April

Investigations into documents leaked to the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation and The Guardian confirm a loophole in Malta’s citizenship scheme that allows applicants to bypass a 12-month residency requirement. This was first uncovered by Transparency International in 2018.

June

6 June. In Cyprus, the government-commissioned independent investigation finds serious irregularities and breaches in the country’s now-suspended citizenship scheme. (See: November 2020)

10 June. The European Commission advances infringement procedures against Cyprus and Malta over their haphazard sale of citizenship. Transparency International welcomes continued legal action and once again urges the Commission to harmonise rules across the Union and address the problem in a systematic manner.

The European Commission announces that it has sent a “reasoned opinion” to the government of Cyprus. The Maltese government reportedly receives another “formal notice” requesting the sale of citizenship stop under the new programme.

Our statement

November

The European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) releases a draft report “with proposals to the Commission on citizenship and residence by investment schemes”, proposed by Member of the European Parliament Sophia in 't Veld.

April

The EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders tells European Parliament’s LIBE committee that the Commission has entered into a dialogue with the governments of Bulgaria, Cyprus and Malta to recommend the phasing out of their citizenship programmes and convince them not to “go too far with these schemes.”

August

The Cyprus Papers are released by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit. Investigative reporters obtained a trove of documents that appear to show how an investment of over €2 million in Cyprus secured EU citizenship for 1,400 wealthy individuals and their 1,100 family members from 2017 to 2019. Reportedly among the primary applicants were at least 30 individuals with pending criminal charges or convictions, as well as 40 politically exposed persons.

Transparency International asks the Commission to propose a roadmap for ending risky golden passport and visa programmes. We also call for the examination of all available evidence for potential breaches of EU law and the consideration of formal infringement procedures.

Our statement

October

We put forward key questions for members of the European Parliament to “quiz” Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders on ways to curb the threats to the entire bloc posed by certain member states’ golden passport and visa schemes.

November

January

10 January. Transparency International Portugal calls on the Ministry of Home Affairs of Portugal to immediately release information on its golden visa programme. This is the third time that our chapter submits a formal request for the information.

23 January. A report by the European Commission recognises that golden visa schemes present “inherent” risks to EU’s collective integrity and security. The Commission announces plans to convene a group of experts from member states to recommend minimum security and due diligence checks for investor schemes by the end of 2019.

The Commission’s report states that the citizenship schemes are “deliberately marketed and often explicitly advertised as a means of acquiring EU citizenship” with Bulgaria, Cyprus and Malta disregarding Union Law by selling passports without requiring applicants to live in their country.

Our statement with Global Witness

March

The European Parliament calls for a phase-out of all investor schemes and singles out Cyprus and Malta for weak due diligence.

April

The European Commission convenes the group of member state experts for the first time to discuss joint work on a common set of security checks, risk management processes, and governance and transparency matters for investor citizenship and residence schemes.

May

The European Commission organises a stakeholder consultation meeting with civil society and the investment migration industry, which Transparency International, Global Witness and Transparency International Portugal attend. A summary note of the consultation is shared with the group of member state experts afterwards.

November

The European Economic and Social Committee demands an end to all investor citizenship and residence schemes in the EU.

December

The group of member state experts meets for the fourth and final time, but the release of minimum security and due diligence checks for investor schemes stalls. Minutes from this meeting are never published.

March

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) publishes Gold for Visas investigations that reveal the rampant sale of EU citizenship and residency to the ultra-rich with few checks. Transparency International calls on the EU to closely monitor these schemes and ensure that proper oversight is in place.

October

A report by Transparency International and Global Witness European Getaway – Inside the Murky World of Golden Visas details the corruption risks inherent with the golden visa programmes. In the absence of harmonised standards at the EU level, these schemes open EU’s doors to the criminal and corrupt.

What are ‘golden passports’ and ‘golden visas’?

Around the world, many countries offer investors an opportunity to acquire residency and, eventually, citizenship. In some places, often where schemes were established in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the route to residency and citizenship is far too quick and devoid of checks. The qualifying requirement is a large and passive form of investment – for example, in luxury property, a national development fund or shares in an existing company. Applicants are not even required to live in the countries they’re supposedly investing in. We call these schemes ‘golden passports’ and ‘golden visas’.

Help us hold European Commission leaders to their word

President @vonderleyen & Commissioner @dreynders: you both have said that European values are not for sale. You can prove this by ending #goldenpassports & regulating #goldenvisas now. @anticorruption
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Tell the Commission to not waste any more time

The EU needs stronger defences against kleptocrats. No more delays; end #goldenpassports & regulate #goldenvisas now, @EU_Commission. @anticorruption https://youtu.be/S_JNEfJfTKw
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