The EU is on the verge of enacting the first-ever visa-free travel golden passport scheme.
Concerns about Vanuatus controversial citizenship-by-investment programmes, or so-called “golden passports,” have prompted the European Commission to suggest restricting visa-free travel for Vanuatu passport holders.
The planned suspension, which EU nations must still agree on, would ban any holders of passports issued after May 25, 2015 – when Vanuatu began issuing a large number of passports in exchange for investment – from entering the EU without a visa.
Citizenship-by-investment (CBI) schemes allow international nationals to acquire citizenship in Vanuatu for $130,000 in a procedure that takes just over a month and does not require them to visit the country.
The EU and its Member States face increased security threats as a result of Vanuatus investor citizenship schemes.
One of the most tempting aspects of the passport scheme is that it allows passport holders to travel visa-free to 130 countries, including the United Kingdom and EU members, for up to 90 days.
According to the Guardian, among the more than 2,000 persons Vanuatu sold citizenship to in 2020 were humiliated businesses and those wanted by authorities in countries all over the world.
A Syrian businessman facing US sanctions – whose citizenship application was revoked after the Guardians reporting – a suspected North Korean politician, an Italian businessman accused of extorting the Vatican, a former member of a notorious Australian motorcycle gang, and two South African brothers accused of a $3.6 billion cryptocurrency heist were among those on the list.
The European Commission said in a statement on January 12 that it was “proposing today a partial suspension of the application of the agreement with the Republic of Vanuatu allowing Vanuatu citizens to travel to the EU without a visa for stays of up to 90 days in any 180-day period.”
“This is required to offset the risks posed to the EU and its Member States by Vanuatus investor citizenship (or “golden passports”) programmes.”
“Todays proposal is the result of intensive discussions with Vanuatus authorities, including prior warnings of the prospect of suspension. In exchange for a minimum expenditure of $130,000, citizens of foreign nations can get Vanuatu citizenship and hence visa-free access to the EU.”
The EC decided that Vanuatus investor citizenship programmes have major flaws and security breaches, based on meticulous monitoring of the schemes and information obtained from Vanuatu.
Citizenship is being granted to those who have been registered in Interpols databases, which raises questions about the security screenings credibility.
There is no systematic interchange of information with the applicants nation of origin or principal prior residency before citizenship is granted, and the typical application processing time is too short to allow for full screening.
A very low rejection rate: only one application was denied until 2020;
The successful candidates places of origin include some that require a visa to enter the EU, as well as some that are generally barred from other citizenship schemes.
As a result, Vanuatus investor citizenship programmes allow people who would otherwise need a visa to travel to the EU to avoid the lengthy Schengen visa process and its in-depth assessment of individual migratory and security risks.
Furthermore, Vanuatus investor citizenship schemes have been commercially promoted since 2015 with the stated goal of granting visa-free access to the EU, despite the fact that the visa waiver agreement does not allow visa-required travellers to circumvent the visa requirement by acquiring Vanuatu citizenship.
On this basis, the Commission has determined that Vanuatus investor citizenship programmes pose increased security concerns to the EU and its Member States, and has proposed a partial and proportional suspension of the visa waiver arrangement.
The ban would apply to all holders of regular passports issued after May 25, 2015, when Vanuatu began issuing passports in exchange for investment in a large number of cases. As a result, these individuals would no longer be permitted to enter the EU without a visa (but would retain the possibility to apply for a visa to visit the EU).
The EC went on to say that it is now up to the Council to look into this suggestion and decide whether or not to suspend the visa waiver agreement in part.
“It is necessary to keep the European Parliament informed.” Vanuatu should be notified at least two months before the suspension is implemented if the Council votes to partially suspend the agreement.
“During the period of partial suspension, the Commission must establish a more intensive conversation with Vanuatu in order to eliminate or significantly reduce the security concerns to the EU and its Member States.” The partial suspension should be withdrawn if Vanuatu takes significant measures to this end.”
It is possible that investor citizenship programmes in countries enjoying visa-free access to the EU will have an influence on the visa-free regime since they pose security risks, according to the report.
The Commissions January 2019 report on investor citizenship programmes raised concerns about such schemes, particularly in terms of security, organised criminal infiltration, money laundering, terrorism financing, tax fraud, and corruption. The Commission also warned in the study that the schemes might be used to get around the standard Schengen visa process and the in-depth risk assessment that comes with it.
Vanuatu has been operating investor citizenship schemes on an increasingly substantial scale, offering citizenship to a large number of applicants, virtually at the same time as the EU-Vanuatu visa waiver agreement was signed and started to apply provisionally in 2015.
The Commission stated that it had closely observed the schemes and gathered data on their administration, including application requirements, applicant security screening, information exchange, and statistics on the number of applications, applicant nationality, and rejection rate.
The EU raised the potential impact of Vanuatus investor citizenship schemes on the visa waiver agreement again at discussions between the EU and Vanuatu in April 2019 and April 2021.
The EU asked Vanuatu to address any risks of organised criminal infiltration, money laundering, tax evasion, and corruption related with such schemes on both occasions. However, no significant changes were made to the schemes, and the government of Vanuatu even went so far as to establish a new citizenship programme in April 2021.
All EU visa waiver arrangements are subject to suspension for security or public policy reasons.