The findings that emerged from a joint media investigation of the Passport Papers show the need for improvements in the cash for passports scheme, not its removal, according to Opposition Leader Bernard Grech.
Replying to questions from The Shift, as one of the newsrooms involved in the investigation into leaked documents from global passports firm Henley & Partners, Grech said: “The PN agrees that there should be a scheme”.
The Opposition Leader said interested individuals should have the opportunity to purchase Maltese, and European, citizenship provided it is an “open and transparent process, based on merit”.
“This, in the sense that a person can acquire citizenship based on his or her integrity and clean record and that the criteria for residency and a genuine link with the country are fulfilled,” Grech told The Shift.
Among the key findings that emerged in the joint media investigation of the Passport Papers is the lack of ‘genuine links’ to the country despite its requirement in the citizenship scheme at the insistence of the European Commission.
The Guardian, part of the consortium investigating the Passport Papers, revealed how the Maltese government accepts a three-week stay in the country as evidence of a ‘genuine link’ to Malta.
Further investigations by the media partners revealed how applicants were guided to meet “the bare minimum” – the law is vague on how much time applicants need to spend in the country.
The investigation, coordinated by the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, shows that the programme has fallen short of attracting “talent” to the country promised by disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat.
Last October, the European Commission initiated infringement proceedings against Malta and Cyprus for selling EU citizenship.
The European Commission said it considers that the granting by these Member States of their nationality – and thereby EU citizenship – in exchange for a pre-determined payment or investment without a genuine link with the Member States concerned, is not compatible with the principle of sincere cooperation enshrined in Article 4(3) of the Treaty on European Union.
“This also undermines the integrity of the status of EU citizenship provided for in Article 20 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union,” the Commission had said.
The PN, however, is on the government’s side on this matter, although the Opposition Leader argued it had to be improved. Grech said the scheme should ensure the applicant “has indeed invested in Malta, besides having purchased or rented a property within the jurisdiction”.
“The PN is willing to support a citizenship scheme which, while attracting investment, does not tarnish the reputation of Malta,” the Opposition Leader added.
Prime Minister Robert Abela has adamantly defended the scheme following the publication of findings in the Passport Papers, saying the programme has brought in €1.5 billion – wealth that people can “experience”.
He dismissed concerns about ‘genuine links’ to the country, saying there are different ways of establishing such links. Receipts available in the cache of leaked documents show some applicants did not go through much effort to satisfy concerns.
The prime minister reiterated the line first used by Economy Minister Silvio Schembri that the funds helped support government efforts to help businesses during COVID. The Opposition has contested this. PN finance spokesperson Mario de Marco said in a statement that the government should stop taking people for a ride.
He said the deficit had increased by €1.3 billion compared to 2019. At the same time, the government reported an increase in debt of €1.26 billion – this showed that the money the government spent on COVID was all coming from debt, de Marco argued.
Abela stressed that reforms of the programme introduced new safeguards “Do we want this programme scrapped for good, or should we try, with all the safeguards in place, to continue to enjoy the wealth this programme has brought in?”
Retaining the cash flow from the passports scheme is a matter on which both parties seem to agree. This is not a new phenomenon in countries where ‘citizenship by investment’ schemes have been introduced.
Prior to elections in 2019 in the Caribbean island nation of Dominica, which has a two-party system similar to Malta’s, the citizenship scheme took centre stage. Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit and Opposition Leader Lennox Linton locked horns, eager to convince voters that their respective parties were best positioned to manage the wealth derived from the programme.
Malta is heading down the path of Caribbean countries, where the issue is not about whether the programme should be retained but who can manage it best.