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31st Oct 2020

Cyprus risks EU legal threat over selling 'Golden Passports'

  • Cyprus has earned some €7bn from selling EU passports since 2013 (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Cyprus may end up in court facing the European Commission for selling EU citizenship to wealthy individuals with possible criminal backgrounds.

The statement from the EU Commission on Tuesday (13 October) follows revelations by an undercover team of Al Jazeera journalists.

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The investigation covertly filmed Cypriot politicians willing to bend the rules to secure an EU passport for a bogus Chinese businessmen with a criminal record.

"We watched in disbelief how high-level officials were trading European citizenship for financial gains," a European Commission spokesperson said of the Al Jazeera expose.

He said the commission is currently looking into compliance with EU law on the Cypriot scheme "in view of possible infringement proceedings."

Cypriot parliament speaker Demetris Syllouris and parliament member Christakis Giovanis were both filmed appearing to incriminate themselves in the so-called Citizenship Investment Programme (CIP).

Also known as the 'Golden Passport', it allows people from outside the European Union to purchase citizenship for large sums of money.

The scheme's backers say there is thorough vetting to make sure criminals are not allowed a passport. However, such a Cypriot passport then grants the buyer the right to live and work anywhere in the 27 EU member states.

In Cyprus it means having to invest some €2m into the country, often in real estate.

The saga has also cast a shadow over Christakis Giovanis, who is one of the island-nation's largest real estate developers.

"The revelations show an unscrupulous mafia-like subculture in an EU member state," warned German Green MEP Sven Giegold, in a statement.

Giegold also said the commission is moving too slowly to crack down on the schemes.

The commission in early 2019 set up a group of experts from the EU states to boost transparency, governance and security of the schemes.

The group has met only four times.

But minutes of one of those meetings show Cyprus claiming it had tweaked its scheme in order "to exclude certain types of high-risk applicants."

Those claims now stand in stark contrast to the Al Jazeera revelations.

In response, the Cypriot government on Tuesday announced their intention to scrap their Golden Passport scheme in its current form, as of 1 November.

"The proposal was based on the long-standing weaknesses but also on the abusive exploitation of the provisions of the programme," it said.

The government had previously defended the scheme, despite the release of some 1,400 documents by Al Jazeera showing Cyprus had granted passports to criminals convicted in their home countries.

At the time, Cyprus' interior minister Nicos Nouris, had described the Al Jazeera investigation as propaganda.

Eric Mamer, European Commission's chief spokesperson, said Cyprus has yet to make any confirmed final decision on scrapping the scheme, despite their announcement.

"That is how we have to judge the situation and possible actions on the part of the commission on this area," he told reporters.

The commission is also looking into similar schemes in Bulgaria and Malta.

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