EU Wants to Crack Down on Passport Buying After Money-Laundering Scandals

(Bloomberg) -- The European Union sounded the alarm on so-called “golden visas,” saying the practice of granting residence to foreigners in return for investments exposes the bloc to money-laundering and security risks.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, said it will intensify the scrutiny of such schemes to make sure that standards on transparency and governance are upheld. The problem is especially pronounced in Cyprus, Malta and Bulgaria, where individuals have been able to obtain an EU passport for investments starting at 800,000 euros, the commission said in a report.

“Member states must at all times fully respect and apply existing obligatory checks and balances -- and national investor residence schemes should not be exempt from that,” Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU commissioner in charge of migration, home affairs and citizenship, said in a statement on Wednesday. “The work we have done together over the past years in terms of increasing security, strengthening our borders, and closing information gaps should not be jeopardized.”

The report comes on the heels of high-profile money-laundering scandals in the European financial system. Danske Bank A/S has said that about $230 billion that flowed through an Estonian unit may need to be treated as suspicious, while ING Groep NV agreed to pay about $900 million to settle a Dutch investigation into corrupt practices by a former client.

The Bulgarian government said it will amend the law to stop issuing residence permits and citizenship rights to investors for investing in listed companies or government securities. About 50 people got Bulgarian citizenship since 2014, mostly from Russia, Egypt and Pakistan, Economy Minister Emil Karanikolov told reporters in Sofia, adding that the decision to amend the law is not related to the Commission’s report.

Cyprus struck a more defiant tone. “Cyprus has the strictest criteria of the 20 countries that offer the possibility of obtaining European citizenship yet is being targeted,” the country’s president Nicos Anastasiades said.

Twenty EU countries currently operate investor residence schemes, which allow the holder to travel freely withing the bloc’s Schengen Area during a limited period of time. The investments necessary to obtain such a visa start at 13,500 euros, according to the commission.

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