MEPs left wondering why it was ‘brave journalists’ and not the EU who revealed flaws in passport schemes.
Members of the European Parliament were highly critical of EU countries offering citizenship through investment programmes following revelations by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit that showed criminals could possibly buy Cypriot passports.
Earlier this week, the EU announced legal action against both Cyprus and Malta over their citizenship schemes, calling on the countries to end the practice.
That announcement came weeks after Al Jazeera released The Cyprus Papers and The Cyprus Papers Undercover, in which Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit revealed how Cyprus has sold passports to criminals and people wanted by the police over the years, and how high-ranking politicians were implicated in the sale of passports.
In its Thursday plenary session, several MEPs called for swift action from the EU to halt the schemes, which grant people who invest enough money in a country an EU passport.
“This house has been debating the problems with golden passports since 2014. Why did it take so long,” Dutch MEP Sophie in’t Veld asked.
“Why did we have to wait for brave journalists to uncover the scandals that we all suspected for a long time,” she added, calling for a full ban on the sale of passports in the European Union.
Her demand was echoed by several others including Finnish MEP Eero Heinaluoma, who called the programmes a “disgrace for the whole European Union”.
“Research shows that EU member states have attracted 25bn euros ($30bn) over the last 10 years thanks to the golden visa programmes,” Heinaluoma said. “Investments are important but so are our values, today even more than ever.”
Referring to Al Jazeera’s investigation he added: “The Cyprus leaks and the names it reveals are worthy of discussion. With enough criminal money you can buy legal entrance into the European Union.”
Cypriot defence of the scheme
The revelations exposed by the network’s Investigative Unit led to Cyprus abolishing the programme in its current form and legal action by the EU, which started infringement procedures against both Malta and Cyprus for the citizenship schemes. Both announced their intention to continue the programmes.
However, according to European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders, the countries should be discouraged from doing that.
“While both Malta and Cyrpus may have the intention to apply some changes to their investor citizenship schemes,” he said, “they appear to be determined to continue their schemes in some form. We need to convince them not to do that.”
Despite the criticism from his colleagues and the start of the infringement procedures, Cypriot MEP Loucas Fourlas defended his country’s programme, saying it had been an important financial lifeline for the country following financial hardships during the last decade.
“This programme has weaknesses, some people exploited those weaknesses and those responsible have been suitably punished,” Fourlas said.
In the wake of the undercover investigation, Cypriot MP Christakis Giovanis (also Giovani) and Speaker of Parliament Demetris Syllouris both resigned from their posts, and the attorney general announced an investigation into possible criminal acts.