Malta may soon offer rich foreign investors the chance to buy a life in the European Union. But the Mediterranean island nation is not alone in selling citizenship for cash.
Under the current proposals a contribution of 650,000 euros – about £540,000 at current exchange rates – to Malta’s national development fund would secure immediate citizenship, without the applicant having to live on the island for any length of time.
Passports for a spouse and dependent children under 18 cost an additional 25,000 euros each.
Henley & Partners, the industry leaders in “citizen planning”, helped design the scheme, and the firm promises to undertake “the world’s strictest due diligence standards and vetting of applicants, thus ensuring only highly respectable clients will be admitted”.
Nevertheless, a storm of criticism from politicians in Malta and across Europe has led to the scheme being put on hold, pending negotiations between the Maltese government and opposition.
The companies that cater to the kind of ultra-rich “global citizens” who are willing to pay millions to secure second passports say demand is high.
Henley & Partners predicts that up to 300 people will buy Maltese citizenship every year if the Malta scheme goes ahead in its current form.
Kamal Rahman, head of immigration at the law firm Mishcon de Reya, was quoted by the Financial Times as saying: “We have a large number of clients urgently awaiting the launch of the programme and are instructed to submit applications at the earliest opportunity.”
An EU passport would give Russian oligarchs, Chinese tycoons or Arab oil billionaires the right to live and work in most EU countries and open up the prospect of visa-free travel to dozens of other global destinations.
Experts say the Malta scheme would be the quickest and cheapest route to EU citizenship on the market. But if Malta’s plans are scuppered, there are plenty of other countries where residency and citizenship are up for sale.
If you have millions of euros to spare and a burning desire for a second passport, what other countries might be on your shopping list?
Dr Jelena Dzankic from the European University Institute, an academic who has been tracking the rise of cash-for-residency schemes in recent years, warned that the concept of citizenship risks being devalued as countries compete with each other to offer rich investors the most attractive deal.
She said: "Since the economic crisis a lot of countries are trying to attract investment and this is an easy way to get an influx of money.
"But citizenship is not just a matter of a passport, and that's what people don't realise. By getting a passport of that country you get the right to be protected, you get the right to vote in most countries, and in some countries you get welfare benefits."
Citizenship is a set of very complex relations and it also has an identity dimension: you should have an emotional attachment to that community.
"If you are able to purchase that for money, it decreases the value of citizenship. If you can now purchase citizenship, can you purchase family, or love, or other concepts which are more abstract?"
Several specialist firms claim to offer a fast track to Austrian citizenship without prior residency – the holy grail for the super-rich – in as little as 12 months.
Austrian law gives the government the power to grant citizenship in exchange for “exceptional achievements rendered or about to be rendered in the special interest of the Republic of Austria”.
There’s no precise definition of what that means, and the process of applying for citizenship is by all accounts a complicated one with few guarantees.
One broker says anyone hoping to bag an Austrian passport will be expected to make a charitable donation of 3m euros or invest 10m euros in the country as a minimum.
There are cheaper options…
The poorest state in the EU recently made it easier for foreigners to get a passport in a bid to boost overseas investment.
The downside? The quickest way to a passport requires an investment of just over 1m euros, and you only get residency in Bulgaria initially, with the option to apply for citizenship after one year.
That still means you could get an EU passport within two years, which is a lot quicker than many other countries, including…
Britain does not run a cash-for-citizenship scheme, but as in many other countries investing a lot of money buys you a residency permit, with the possibility of applying for citizenship later.
You need to invest at least £1m (1.2m euros) and will need to live in the UK for five years before being able to apply for citizenship, but there are strict requirements about how much time you physically spend in the country, making Britain a less attractive choice for jet-setters.
Over the last year a number of EU countries including Ireland, Portugal, Hungary have launched, re-launched or relaxed immigrant investor schemes offering residency in return for capital, with the prospect of citizenship down the line.
If an EU passport is not the top priority, there are cheaper ways of getting citizenship of a different country.
The Caribbean nations of St Kitts and Nevis, Dominica and Antigua and Barbuda all sell full citizenship in exchange for various levels of donation or investment, with applicants usually only required to visit the country briefly.
All three are members of the Commonwealth, which comes with certain privileges. Citizens can stand for election to the UK parliament or sit in the House of Lords.
Obviously the big drawback here is that there is no right to live and work in the EU, although St Kitts and Nevis and Antigua and Barbuda passport holders can travel to every EU country and Switzerland, as well as the UK and Canada, without a visa.