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Europe’s Golden Visas Are Booming, Despite Calls to Get Rid of Them

source: Bloomberg

Europe’s citizenship-by-investment programs are alive and well, despite calls from across the political spectrum to end them.

In Greece and Portugal, the number of visas granted in recent months has been on the up, and demand in Italy and Spain has hit record levels.

So-called golden visas allow wealthy foreigners to gain EU residency — and by extension, a path to citizenship — by investing in local real estate or financial assets. There are few strings attached, and some programs require spending no more than a week in the country per year.

More than 132,000 people obtained citizenship through these programs between 2011 and 2019, and political blowback has intensified as they’ve been associated with soaring property prices and lax regulation. Members of the European Parliament and the European Commission have urged EU countries to shut them down, and Ireland and the UK have already done so. Russia’s war on Ukraine has put extra scrutiny on golden visas for being, as Belgian MP Saskia Bricmont put it, a potential way for “oligarchs, criminals and corrupt politicians” to “buy their way into Europe and launder their cash, image and identities.”

Yet for all this, there’s little evidence that golden visas are any harder to get.

“We haven’t observed any significant changes in the difficulty of obtaining a visa,” said Patricia Casaburi, managing director at immigration consultancy Global Citizen Solutions.

And more people than ever are trying to get in while they can.

Big Talk

Introduced in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis to attract foreign capital, golden visas became especially popular during the pandemic as Americans seeking a Plan B flocked to Europe.

While politicians across Europe have been talking a big game, the legislation they have passed to restrict golden visas hasn’t been nearly as tough. Portugal did get rid of its residency-via-real estate investment option in July, but left intact the possibility for foreigners to obtain residency if they invest at least €500,000 in local companies or funds not connected to real estate. The Netherlands is still accepting golden visa applications, despite having announced plans to terminate its program. So is Montenegro.

Cyprus altered its visa framework this May — previously, an investor’s family members could also receive golden visas — but mostly left its program unchanged. Bulgaria reintroduced its golden visa scheme this year after closing it in 2021. Malta has refused to reform its program, despite repeated calls from the EU Commission to do so. And raising investments thresholds, as Greece recently did, is not considered a major deterrent.

“For people worth about $5 to 7 million, richer millionaires, a $500,000 investment to get EU residency is fine,” said Nuri Katz, founder of Canada-based immigration consultancy Apex Capital Partners.

Among countries that have done away with their programs, other options are on offer. While there’s no exact equivalent to a golden visa, alternatives like digital nomad visas, designed for remote workers seeking to live abroad, are increasingly popular. Founders interested in setting up a business in the UK, France, Ireland or Germany can also apply for special investor visas, which grant temporary residency and a path to a permanent stay. In both cases, requirements are stricter than those of golden visas: Digital nomad visas require that recipients spend most of the year in the country, and investor visas require submitting clear business plans and annual reports, and making an up-front investment.

Uncertainty about the future of golden visa programs has been a boon for immigration consultancies. The London-based firm Get Golden Visa recorded a 127% increase in inquiries about Portuguese and Greek golden visas in the first half of this year, compared to the same period last year. Consultancy Henley Partners said interest was at an all-time high, with inquiries up 125% for programs in Italy. Global Citizen Solutions pointed to a 20% increase in queries about Portugal’s golden visa compared to last year.

More people are actually going through with the process, too: the number of golden visas granted in Portugal in May alone hit a several-year high of 180, according to government statistics. In Greece, that number reached 412, up 87% from the previous year.​

Spain granted 2,462 golden visas in total last year, up 60% from 2021. Italy also handed out 79 golden visas last year, mostly to Russians, Americans and Brits. That’s nearly double the amount of the previous year, and the most granted since the country launched its program in 2018.

“Every time governments threaten to shut these programs down, there’s a surge of demand of people trying to get through the door before they close,” said Katz. “It’s great for business.”

Too Big to Fail

The main reason why immigration consultants aren’t nervous about these programs disappearing is simply because of the money at stake. Over the past decade, golden visa-granting countries across Europe have received about €25 billion total in foreign direct investment through these programs. Portugal has been one of the big beneficiaries over the years, bringing in €6.8 billion ($7.3 billion).

“We still advise our clients to get it,” Peter Franke, an immigration lawyer in Spain, said of the visa. “They’re too big to fail.”

This dynamic is particularly pronounced in southern European economies, which tend to be more reliant on foreign capital. Such countries are less likely to close the door on golden visas completely, said Will Harvey, a leadership professor at the University of Bristol in the UK who studies reputation and skilled migration.

“Governments want to show they’re taking a hard line on golden visas, but those visas are important to struggling economies, so a lot of EU countries end up being quite ambivalent,” he said.

Countries dealing with high debt and low growth while trying to meet ambitious net-zero climate goals are most likely to need foreign capital, economists say. That means if golden visa programs are reformed or eliminated, other tax incentives might replace them. In Spain, a law passed this January allows non-residents — including those on digital nomad visas — to pay a flat tax of 24% on income of up to €600,000 for six years, compared to a 47% tax rate for residents in higher income brackets.

Still, if the new restrictions do dissuade people from seeking residency within the EU, Casaburi of Global Citizen Solutions said that Latin America and the UAE, which also offer attractive visas, are good options. And for those willing to relocate straight away, digital nomad visas are available in Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy.

“There are still plenty of options out there,” she said.

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