In the face of mounting pressure to abolish residency-by-investment programs, Europe’s golden visas continue to flourish, driving business for immigration consultancies across the continent. Despite widespread political appeals to end these programs, countries like Greece, Portugal, Italy, and Spain are witnessing a surge in demand for these so-called golden visas, enabling wealthy individuals to gain residency by investing in local real estate or financial assets.
The investor visa programs, often colloquially referred to as ‘golden visas,’ provide individuals with the opportunity to acquire residency permits through avenues such as property investment, substantial capital injections, or charitable contributions. The allure of residency or citizenship within a European nation holds special appeal for affluent individuals who consider these privileges an insurance policy against political instability in their current domicile. Originally introduced to attract foreign capital after the 2008 financial crisis, these programs gained further prominence during the pandemic as Americans sought alternatives in Europe.
These programs have faced criticism for potentially contributing to rising property prices and weak regulations, that subvert fundamental citizenship principles and can potentially facilitate money laundering and tax evasion.
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has further intensified concerns. Saskia Brcimont, Belgian MEP, labeled gloden visas as a “way for oligarchs, criminals, and corrupt politicians” to “buy their way into Europe and launder their money, image, and identity”.
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. It opens the door to corruption, money laundering and tax avoidance.Didier Reynders, EU Commissioner for Justice and Consumers
The European Comission has also initiated action against countries it deems insufficiently regulated in administering these programs. On March 28th, the Commission urged the Member States to repeal and suspend any golden passports granted to Russian or Belarusian nationals significantly supporting the war in Ukraine and to ensure strong checks are in place to address the risks posed by investor residence schemes, following an individual assessment and in accordance with the principle of proportionality, fundamental rights and Member States’ national law.
The right to travel freely within the Schengen area is among our greatest assets. We need strong checks to make sure this right is not abused. Golden residence permits issued to Russians and Belarusians under EU sanctions should be revoked.Ylva Johansson, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs
The rationale behind this advisory was linked to concerns that individuals “subject to sanctions or significantly supporting the war in Ukraine” might exploit these programs to gain EU citizenship or privileged access to the Schengen area’s free movement.
As the European Union (EU) vowed to tighten its stance on citizenship-by-investment programs, and fervent appeals from diverse political quarters for their abolition, throughout Europe, calls to terminate these programs have gained momentum. While Portugal’s Prime Minister announced the discontinuation of its program, Greece has raised its investment threshold for certain regions, from 250,000 to 500,000 euros, and Spain is deliberating increasing its minimum investment requirement from 500,000 to 1 million euros or axing the program altogether.
Yet, despite these efforts, obtaining golden visas doesn’t seem to have become more challenging. The allure of these programs persists, proving to be a complex economic and geopolitical issue that defies easy solutions.
“We haven’t noticed any significant change in the difficulty of obtaining a visa”, said Patricia Casaburi, Managing Director at Global Citizen Solutions.
The implemented legislations across Europe have been notably lenient. Countries like Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Malta have introduced changes but kept their programs largely intact. For individuals with substantial wealth, the relatively small investment required for EU residency remains an attractive proposition. The increase in investment thresholds, such as Greece’s recent adjustment, hasn’t proved to be a significant obstacle. According to founder of Canadian-based immigration consultancy Apex Capital Partners, Nuri Katz , “for people with wealth around 5 to 7 million US dollars, a 500,000 US dollars investment to get EU residency is a good deal”.
Portugal removed the real estate investment residency option in July 2023, but retained alternatives for gaining residency through 500,000 euros investments in local companies or unrelated funds. The Netherlands and Montenegro continue to accept applications despite announcing plans to discontinue their programs.
While not equivalent to golden visas, options like digital nomad visas and investor visas are gaining recognition, as alternatives to the stricter access to golden visas. Digital nomad visas cater to remote workers seeking to reside abroad, while demanding extended stays in the country; investor visas necessitate comprehensive business plans and prior investments, as well as annua reports, narrowing down their access compared to citizenship-by-investment programs.
“Every time governments threaten to close these programs, there’s an increase in people trying to become a part of them before they close,” Katz said. “It’s great for business.”
Tighter access and the overall uncertainty surrounding the future of golden visa programs has immigration consultancies finding their business flourishing. Firms have reported substantial increases in golden visa requests, with requests for Portuguese and Greek visas showing a 127% surge in the first half of the year at London-based firm Get Golden Visa. Spain witnessed a 60% rise in granted golden visas, and Italy issued nearly double the number compared to the previous year.
According to official government data, the issuance of golden visas reached 180 in Portugal during the month of May alone. Greece also witnessed a remarkable increase, granting a total of 412 golden visas during the same period – a significant 87% rise compared to the previous 2022 figures.
The trend of escalating numbers continues in Spain, which saw a 60% rise in golden visas granted, compared to 2021, totalling 2,462 in 2022. Similarly, Italy issued 79 golden visas last year. These visas were predominantly awarded to citizens from Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. This figure represents the highest issuance since the program’s inception in 2018.
The economic implications also drive the continued existence of these programs. Over the past decade, European countries have amassed around €25 billion in foreign direct investment through these programs. Portugal alone has gathered 6.8 billion euros over the years through the program. Southern European economies, more dependent on foreign capital, are unlikely to fully close the door to golden visas. Countries burdened by debt, low growth, and climate targets may seek alternative tax incentives to attract foreign capital in case the golden visa programs are completely abolished.
The potential shift in these programs could lead individuals to explore options outside the EU. Latin America and the United Arab Emirates offer attractive alternatives.