The citizenship bubble of Malta

Malta golden passport 1

Many issues are involved in the citizenship debate.

The government clearly considers Maltese citizenship as just another commodity, which it can milk. Initially it even removed the transparency rule from the statute book, which rule ensured the publication of the names of all those who acquired Maltese citizenship.

Whereas local public opinion was completely ignored, the Labour government reacted to the international media coverage by announcing that it will reverse its ditching of transparency. Yet its reaction may be too late as the damage done to Malta’s reputation is not easily reversed.

The international media queried the unconventional methods used to generate the finance required by the Maltese state.

Within EU circles it is clear that issues concerning citizenship are a competence reserved to member states. Yet the  Schengen dimension of EU citizenship cannot be ignored.

The citizenship scheme is attractive because, through it, the prospective citizen attains freedom of movement within the EU.

It is a very serious concern which can only be adequately addressed if the due diligence process is foolproof.

The problem is that, to date, the Maltese Government has already signalled that it is not that much concerned by the impact of persons who are associated with a fraudulent past, a case in point being government advisor Shiv Nair who is listed permanently on the World’s Bank blacklist.

Another recent example is China Communications Construction Company Limited, also on the World Bank blacklist. This Chinese Company will carry out (gratis) the feasibility study for a Malta-Gozo bridge on the basis of the very friendly relations between the two republics, we were told. (I had the impression that countries had no friends, they just have interests!)

This follows the earlier selection of Lahmeyer International as an advisor to the Gonzi Government. Lahmeyer International too was on the World Bank’s  blacklist.

Past performance indicates that due diligence is not an area in which the Republic of Malta has excelled.

Is it a sale or is it an investment? In fact it is a bit of both. It is surely an unconventional way of raising finance. Its major characteristic is that it focuses on the short term benefits and ignores the long term impacts.  The selling price can give immediate results: it can finance the start-up of specific projects. Whether these will be successful is another matter altogether. The impacts of an investment scheme will take more time, its a long term exercise.

The method of payment selected for the purchase of citizenship is clearly based on the St Kitts and Nevis model in the Caribbean.  In St Kitts and Nevis, payment for citizenship is received by the Sugar Industry Diversification Foundation and, subsequently, invested. The investment made is not at the discretion of the applicant for citizenship but a decision by the country dishing out the citizenship.

Public opinion considers that citizenship should be acquired through establishing solid roots in the country. Establishing minimum residence criteria and committment to the economic development of Malta through investment and job creation are essential criteria to be linked to the award of economic citizenship.

Government has done well, even though late in the day, to declare that it will reverse its secrecy stance. The declaration by Deputy Prime Minister Louis Grech that the regulations being drafted to implement government’s proposal will ensure that the names of those granted citizenship under the new legislation are public is welcome. This new position adopted by the government links with and reinforces the public committments made on the need for more robust due diligence.

It is, however, clear  that regulations alone will not suffice to entrench transparency in the citizenship scheme.  Amendments will also be necessary to the main legislation, in particular to remove reporting restrictions imposed by Parliament on the regulator.

The citizenship debate was also characteristed by the radical position taken by the Nationalist Party that, once back in office, it would not only take steps to scrap the new citizenship scheme but that it would, moreover, withdraw citizenship granted under the provisions of the scheme.

The Attorney General has advised the government that the PN’s proposal would be unconstitutional and would infringe human rights. Such advice was confirmed by the Dean of the Faculty of Law and by constitutional expert Ian Refalo.

The PN has declared that it is in receipt of legal advice reinforcing its position on the withdrawal of citizenship granted.

Whilst the Prime Minister has published the advice received from the Attorney General, the Leader of the Opposition has failed to follow suit. The Leader of the Opposition needs to be consistent. He cannot chastise the government for being secretive whilst simultaneously withholding important information from the public. It is not just the government which needs to be transparent.

The availability of both government and opposition to meet and discuss possible modifications to the citizenship scheme is welcome. Hopefully the wider national interest will prevail.

published in The Times Saturday, 23 November 2013