EU ‘golden’ visas scandal in spotlight

A court in Portugal is to deliver verdicts Friday in a corruption trial linked to so-called “golden” visas granted to wealthy foreign investors, a scandal that has thrown a spotlight on a controversial but widespread practice in Europe.

The interior minister of the former center-right government, Miguel Macedo, and three Chinese nationals are among the 17 people and four companies who went on trial over the affair in February 2017.

The charges include corruption, money-laundering and influence-peddling.

Macedo, who was forced to resign after the scandal broke in late 2014, is accused of helping a network of senior officials and intermediaries in the real estate sector to profit from the granting of the residency permits to foreign investors.

Cash-strapped Portugal in late 2012 began offering the “golden” visas to wealthy foreigners willing to invest 500,000 euros ($570,000) in property, make a capital transfer of one million euros or create 10 jobs.

The country handed out 6,800 such permits to investors and 11,600 more to their family members in exchange for 4.15 billion euros in investments, most of it in real estate.

China was the country with the largest number of beneficiaries of the scheme followed by Brazil.


– ‘A perverse scheme’ –

The defendants are accused of artificially inflating the prices of some properties in order to reach the required investment levels.

Macedo is also alleged to have backed the creation of a senior position in the immigration service of the Portuguese embassy in Beijing tasked with finding suitable candidates for the scheme.

But Portugal is far from being the only country involved in granting the special permits – or the most generous.

In a report published last October, Transparency International and Global Witness said four EU countries — Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Malta — “sell” passports to wealthy investors, while 12 offer them residency rights.

“It is a perverse scheme and a prostitution of citizenship which… fuels corruption by feeding a whole network of intermediaries,” Portuguese Socialist MEP Ana Gomes told AFP.

Spain tops the list of countries in terms of the number of visas issued and the amount of capital received — an average of 976 million euros annually.

In total, European countries pulled in 25 billion euros from 6,000 new citizens and some 100,000 residents over the last 10 years, the report from the two NGOs said.

“Just like a luxury good, European Union citizenship and residency rights can be bought,” it said.

“There are many buyers, and there is no shortage of suppliers, which explains why investment migration is a growing, multi-billion-euro industry.”


– ‘A growing industry’ –

For Gomes, “it is intolerable to hear some security discourses about migrants and refugees, and then to see that the discourse changes completely when it concerns wealthy foreigners.”

In analyzing the cases of Cyprus, Malta and Portugal, Transparency International and Global Witness noted “the ways in which insufficient due diligence, wide discretionary powers and conflicts of interest can open Europe’s door to the corrupt.”

As part of an effort to combat money-laundering, the European Commission is to present a report early this year on national schemes granting EU citizenship or residency to investors.

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