The EU Wants to Clamp Down on the Super Rich’s Visa of Choice

Amid a worldwide refugee crisis and increased immigration restrictions, most EU member states sell “golden visas”—residence permits or citizenship—to the ultra-wealthy for thousands or even millions of euros.

A traveler arrives at Gatwick Airport in London and approaches the line for EU passport holders.
A traveler arrives at Gatwick Airport in London. (Oli Scarff / Getty)

More than a million people have sought refuge in Europe over the past few years; some will eventually become citizens. Still more have moved for work and the promise of ultimately securing a permanent place. But a select group does something else entirely: They pay. A lot.

Over the past decade, some European Union member states have earned tens of billions of dollars overall by selling residency and, in some cases, citizenship to the super rich. But critics say that the opaque nature of these schemes makes them vulnerable to corruption. Now the EU is getting involved, telling its member states to increase scrutiny of applicants vying for these “golden visas.”

An individual with residency in an EU member state can travel across much of the bloc without additional paperwork, while those with citizenship can work and travel anywhere within the EU, as well as to non-EU countries that have visa-free arrangements with its members. In its first report on golden-visa schemes, the EU said Wednesday that elements of the programs heighten the risks to security, and open the door to money laundering and tax evasion across the bloc.

Supporters of the programs say that most of the applicants are not untoward. Perhaps more important, the visas have been a financial boon for the EU countries that offer them. In all, golden-visa schemes have pulled in an estimated 25 billion euros, or $28 billion, over the past decade, according to a joint report released last October by Global Witness and Transparency International. Of the bloc’s 28 member states, 20 sell residence permits for prices ranging from the hundreds of thousands of euros (a Greek residence permit can be had for a 250,000-euro investment in property) to millions (British residency starts at 2 million pounds, or 2.3 million euros). Three countries—Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Malta—also sell citizenship. But the screening requirements for the potential investors vary drastically by country, prompting worries in Brussels, and beyond.

“People obtaining an EU nationality must have a genuine connection to the member state concerned,” Věra Jourová, the European commissioner for justice, consumers, and gender equality, said in a statement on Wednesday. “We want more transparency on how nationality is granted and more cooperation between member states.”

Indeed, the sale of residency and citizenship to those rich enough to pay challenges the very idea of citizenship and immigration. From Britain and Germany to Italy and Hungary, Europe is mired in a debate over mass immigration and integration, but the super rich have largely been left untouched. The beneficiaries of golden-visa schemes aren’t photographed walking across borders, jumping over fences, or crossing the Mediterranean. They are wealthy, welcomed by governments, and mostly anonymous.

The EU’s recommendations this week come with golden-visa schemes under increased scrutiny. In Malta, for instance, the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed by a car bomb in October 2017 while she was investigating her country’s own visa program for the rich, which she believed was rife with corruption. Last month, Britain said it was suspending its own program and said it would formulate new rules. It has since reversed its position, though the visas granted to 700 rich Russians are reportedly being reviewed. Portugal’s program is also under the microscope because of allegations of misuse and a lax requirement for residency (those who get Portugal’s golden visa only need to be in the country seven days a year).

Proponents—such as David Lesperance, whose firm, Lesperance & Associates, helps wealthy clients secure residency and nationality in countries like Canada, the U.S., and the U.K.—insist that the overwhelming majority of residencies or citizenships obtained through these programs are legitimate. Applicants are coming, supporters of golden visas say, for many of the same reasons that less-affluent migrants cross borders: to escape political instability and for a better quality of life. And, according to Lesperance, because these visas are open only to the super rich, the number of applications are tiny compared to overall numbers of immigrants, which means that governments can dedicate more resources to screening them. (Over the past decade, the program has created 6,000 new EU citizens and about 100,000 residents.)

“If I’m a scoundrel, I would not be looking at an economic residence or citizenship program,” Lesperance told me.

The visas are especially attractive to the super rich in countries with weak institutions or fickle rule of law: Indeed, China and Russia, in that order, account for the overwhelming majority of golden visas in the EU countries that provide such data. Global Witness and Transparency International said in their report that Chinese nationals were the top recipients of such visas in six countries (Britain, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain), while Russian nationals were the highest number in two (Bulgaria and Latvia).

The EU in its report Wednesday said that it planned to set a up a panel of experts who would recommend ways to improve the programs and develop common security checks by the end of the year. But the bloc’s ability to bring about change is limited—nor is it certain that the countries that have benefited financially from golden-visa programs will go along with recommendations. Nicos Anastasiades, the president of Cyprus, which sells its passports for 2 million euros, said Wednesday that the EU’s report singled out his country.

“At some point, these double standards must end,” he said.