Originally Published in The Washington Post.

DOVER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 30: UK Border Force Cutter, ‘Search’ berths at Ramsgate Harbour on December 30, 2018 in Ramsgate, England. The growing number of migrants attempting to cross the English Channel has been declared a “major incident” by UK home secretary Sajid Javid. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images) (Photographer: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images Europe)

By Lionel Laurent | Bloomberg

January 23, 2019

In these populist times, citizenship is being weaponized. Just look at Brexit and its looming impact on immigrants who don’t hold the “right” passport, or Trump’s threat to overhaul skilled worker visas. Still, there’s still one way to get to choose where you live: Be a wealthy investor.

Over the past decade, there has been a boom in so-called “golden visas,” where countries offer residency rights and sometimes a fast-track to citizenship in exchange for a six-or-seven-figure investment. While once largely the preserve of sun-kissed tax havens such as St. Kitts and Nevis or the Seychelles, the 2008 financial crisis led plenty of European countries to follow suit – and to downplay the risk of tax evasion and financial crime.

A 2018 report by Transparency International and Global Witness estimated that Spain, Hungary, Latvia, Portugal and the Brexit-primed U.K. have granted more than 10,000 golden visas each in the last 10 years to investors and their families. Cyprus and Malta have reaped big gains despite their small size. The former has raised 4.8 billion euros ($5.5 billion) from this since 2013, while tiny Malta has earned about 718 million euros in foreign direct investment since 2014. The OECD singled out both as “high-risk,” because they offered low taxes on foreign assets with a lax approach to whether people needed to be physically present.

While there has been a backlash of sorts, it has been late in coming and pretty patchy. Britain only seriously bothered itself with the dangers of illicit money from abroad after the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal on home soil, proposing a suspension of investor visas (since reversed) and issuing its first “Unexplained Wealth Order,” which compels people to disclose the source of their riches. And while the European Commission is due to issue a warning on Wednesday on the risks of golden visa schemes, according to Reuters, it’s unlikely to introduce any associated sanctions or new supranational rules.

That’s a shame. It may not be in Brussels’ interests to tread too heavily on the toes of member states when it comes to tax schemes, investment incentives and citizenship rights. But there’s clearly room to beef up the policing of the middlemen, lawyers and real-estate brokers who have rushed to secure EU passports for people with sometimes obscure sources of wealth.

Without a collective European approach to set a minimum standard for regulation and the fight against financial crime, the only check on a race to the bottom is voter anger. And history suggests that only happens when it’s too late. Only when Latvia became worried about its national security, especially after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, did it begin to tighten the rules on its own golden visa program. Judging by the Baltic state’s struggle to contain massive money laundering, the EU can’t leave this fight to member states.

Brexit is something else for Europe to worry over. If the U.K. crashes out of the EU without a deal – or manages to extricate itself without staying in the bloc’s customs union or single market – tax sweeteners for foreigners and ever more enticing investor visas might be used as a way to boost foreign investment. And the Brits have shown before that they can be pretty relaxed about these kinds of migrants. The passport wars aren’t over yet.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.


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