BRUSSELS (AP) -- The European Commission recommended Monday that EU nations end golden passport schemes that allow wealthy people to buy their way into the bloc's citizenship, and urged them to assess whether Russian oligarchs linked to the Kremlin or who support the war in Ukraine should be stripped of citizenship rights previously granted.
The European Commission launched infringement procedures against Cyprus and Malta in 2020 about their golden passports schemes, and the Russian war in Ukraine has put an increased focused on the topic.
The Commission warned that some Russian or Belarusian citizens who are among the 877 individuals targeted by asset freezes and travel bans imposed since 2014, or who support the Russian invasion of its neighbor, might have acquired EU citizenship or had access to the Schengen area via these schemes.
The EU's executive arm said the countries should now consider whether they should withdraw golden passports issued to such individuals. In addition, it recommended immediately taking away residence permits that have been granted under an investor scheme to Russian or Belarusian citizens supporting the war or subject to sanctions.
Malta and Bulgaria currently have citizenship by investment plans in operation, while Cyprus which scrapped its own program in November 2020 is only processing applications submitted before that date. Bulgarian lawmakers recently backed a decision to end its golden passport program.
Cyprus cancelled the program after an undercover TV report allegedly showed the parliamentary speaker and a powerful lawmaker claiming that they could skirt rules to issue a passport to a fictitious Chinese investor who had supposedly been convicted of fraud at home.
A 2021 report found that more than half of a total 6,779 passports were issued unlawfully to relatives of wealthy investors over the program's 13-year run that generated over 8 billion euros. The report said the government had incorrectly interpreted the law on issuing passports to relatives and also found that nearly 770 foreigners were wrongly granted citizenship primarily because of inadequate vetting.
Cyprus' Interior Minister Nicos Nouris confirmed to The Associated Press that there are four Russians who have been sanctioned and received a Cypriot passport under the island nation's investment scheme.
According to the EU Parliament, twelve EU countries operate residence by investment schemes. The minimum investment levels range from 60,000 euros to 1,250,000 euros.
"European values are not for sale. We consider that the sale of citizenship through 'golden passports' is illegal under EU law and poses serious risks to our security," said Didier Reynders, the Commissioner for Justice and Consumers. "It opens the door to corruption, money laundering and tax avoidance."
The commission's recommendation came after European lawmakers called earlier this month for an end to the sale of citizenship through investment schemes, and for a better regulation of residence by investment programs.
In addition to its call "to immediately repeal any existing investor citizenship schemes," the commission also urged EU countries to conduct strict checks before issuing any residence permit for investors.