Blog / Sept. 19, 2017

‘Golden visas’ candidates should be thoroughly screened

The EU is bribing Libya to prevent desperate young men and women reaching the safety of our shores, while member states open wide their doors to corrupt foreign politicians who can buy ‘golden visas’, writes Ana Gomes. 

Along the coast of Libya, refugee camps house Africans desperate to reach European soil. Conditions are appalling – the Pope has called them modern day concentration camps. Those in the camps are fleeing war, persecution and economic and political suffocation. Thousands have perished on the route, murdered and raped by smugglers, or left to sink in fragile rubber boats in the Mediterranean. And the EU is paying Libya to keep them there, to prevent these desperate young men and women reaching the safety of our shores. 

At the same time, Global Witness tells us that at least twelve EU Member States are rolling out the red carpet to a very different type of economic migrant. A number of programmes grant residency rights or citizenship to people from outside the EU in exchange for investment in property, government bonds or companies. Known as golden visas, these schemes are a magnet for the wealthy and sometimes the corrupt. 

I have warned the EU and national authorities that these schemes are open to abuse by corrupt officials for many years. An industry of facilitators has emerged around them, with law firms and real estate agents trading on links with national administrations and politicians to speed up procedures for handsome payoffs. 

Take Portugal, where I come from. Spending €350, 000 on property here can buy you residency and freedom of movement in the Schengen Area. In 2014 the alleged abuse of these fast-track visas brought several high ranking public officials, including the former Home Affairs Minister, to trial on charges of corruption, influence peddling, and abuse of power. In the meantime, Lisbon went through a real estate bubble. Housing prices soared as wealthy, often absent, foreign owners poured in, while young and disadvantaged people were forced out of the best areas of the capital. 

Managed like this, visa investor programmes pose a threat to the financial system and the security of all EU citizens. They are attractive to kleptocrats, criminal organisations, and sanction busters who want safe haven in the EU and a base to launder what they have stolen. It is no surprise to me that most golden visa candidates come from countries with high levels of corruption. 

When I confront EU authorities on this I am told that the financial institutions involved in the transactions and real estate agents are required, under EU law, to carry out checks on individuals. But I am sceptical of their effectiveness. Clearly, this isn’t working. As today’s Guardian exposés show, a number of politically exposed people with questionable business histories have successfully applied for golden visas. 

When big sums are involved it seems that the appetite for risk is immense. Banks and real estate agents are probably keen to assume that the state authorities granting the visa will do their own assessment, but lack of resources and political will mean it’s unlikely this is happening. It explains why the Portuguese authorities have refused to publish or even supply me with the names of the 13,000 people who have been granted golden visas in the last five years.

To tackle this laissez-faire approach, I have proposed an amendment to the EU Anti-Money Laundering Directive, to ensure that immigration authorities across the EU carry out robust checks on all golden visa candidates. Unsurprisingly, the Council of member states vehemently opposed the inclusion of the clause in the legislation, and it could be stripped out of the final legislation altogether. After much pressure, the European Commission has finally decided to issue a report and provide guidance to Member States that offer golden visas. 

What is most troubling about is what these schemes say about our democracies. Anything and everything is for sale, exacerbating the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The fact that these programmes exist at a time when some member states deploy troops to prevent refugees from crossing their borders is unbearable to anyone who believes that our democratic systems are grounded on human rights and equality under the law. 

Golden visas are yet another consequence of the kind of neoliberal thinking and pervasive market-led policies penetrating every sphere of the state, creating an ever-increasing threat to social justice. It is imperative and urgent that we revert back to values that keep our societies safe, fair and sustainable. This means holding our leaders accountable for schemes that give free rein to the corrupt whilst ignoring those who need most help, and forcing a debate on what kind of society we want to live in.

Ana Gomes is a Portuguese Member of the European Parliament from the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group. She is Vice Chair of the Committee of Inquiry to investigate alleged contraventions and maladministration in the application of Union law in relation to money laundering, tax avoidance and tax evasion.

This article was originally published by EURACTIV. 

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