After the Al Jazeera revelations, the Cyprus Investment Program is being pushed into the European Commission’s discussion agenda.
Kathimerini Cyprus had reported on Sunday that the matter was set to be discussed on Wednesday October 29, but during last Friday’s meeting among the heads of the Commissioners’ offices, the matter was pushed forward and placed on the agenda for Monday October 19.
According to information secured by “K”, what the Belgian EU Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders is pushing for, in consultation with President Ursula von der Leyen, is the examination of the legal measures the Commission is able to take in the face of potential violations of Community law by Cyprus.
While Commission spokespersons have not officially confirm this information, they also did not deny it when asked. Even so, as Reynders clarified in statements to Al Jazeera in August, before his position was reiterated to “K” by a spokesperson of his, the Commission is looking into instituting infringement proceedings against Cyprus.
A source in Brussels told “K” that von der Leyen’s reference to the matter of the sale of passports in her address before the European Parliament on September 17 is not coincidental. The President had underlined that she will stand against ‘golden passports’ programs, and that “European values are not for sale.”
The government's speedy reaction, this time at least, to completely abolish the program from November 1, indicates that the government has received the Commission's message. There is no doubt that there has been communication between Nicosia and Brussels, even if President Anastasiades missed an opportunity to speak with von der Leyen on the sidelines of the last European Council, as the President of the Commission had to go into isolation shortly after the session began.
Meanwhile, it has already been announced that the Plenary Session of the European Parliament will take place on Thursday October 22, under the title ‘Serious security threats through the sale of EU passports and visas to criminals.’ The Commission is also expected to be represented in the debate, which means that what will be said is of particular interest.
“We watched with disbelief”
Officially, the Commission isn’t showing its cards, despite an official announcement in which the Commission’s spokesperson for justice matters, Christian Wigand, strongly portrayed Brussel’s annoyance in a way that wasn’t as diplomatic as usual.
“We watched with disbelief high-ranking officials trading European citizenship for financial gain,” Wigand had stressed, recalling that the Commission had expressed its serious concerns directly to Cypriot authorities multiple times.
Responding to a written question by “K” regarding the measures that could be taken by the EU against Cyprus, a Commission spokesperson said that progress on infringement proceedings are made public, but added that "we are not going to make any assumptions about possible future infringement proceedings".
Asked why the issue of golden passports was not included in the Cyprus chapter of the Commission’s report on the rule of law, the same spokesperson pointed out that the issue had been presented in detail in the 2019 special report on visa and citizenship programs for investors.
The spokesperson noted that the incorporation of the 5th Directive against money laundering into Cypriot legislation is still pending, even though member states had until January 1 2020 to do so.
It is also worth noting that Cyprus is the only country that has not informed the Commission on the progress of work and has received an official letter requesting more information, and is also one of the 22 countries for which infringement proceedings have been initiated for non-implementation or partial implementation.
The letter was sent last February, which means that the usual deadline for a response within two months has passed.
What we should expect
An infringement procedure is the way in which the Commission tackles member states which violate EU law. The procedure can go as far as the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, although many cases are resolved with compliance much earlier.
The first stage of the procedure is a formal letter in which the Commission requests an explanation from the member state. If there is no satisfactory response, the Commission sends a formal request for compliance, known as a reasoned opinion. If again within two months there is no compliance, the case is referred to the European Court of Justice which may impose sanctions on the member state.
With regard to possible legislative changes, Community sources monitoring the issue note that these could be common pan-European practices and security regulations for such programs that could be proposed by the Commission for approval by the EU Council and Parliament.
Already after the notorious report of 2019, experts on such programs from all member states (including Cyprus) participated in a series of meetings with the Commission and submitted their positions, while a public consultation was underway until October 1 through the website of the Commission.
This may mean that such a legislative proposal is in the works and will be presented soon.
Sven Giegold: Cyprus is not a target
Speaking to “K”, the German MEP with the European Green Party Sven Giegold repeatedly underlined that reactions should not target only Cyprus, but also how the Commission should comprehensively tackle the issue of ‘golden passports’ and the risks that they carry.
"In any way you look at it, it is an immoral practice as you cannot sell the rights arising from citizenship," he said.
What is striking in the case of Cyprus, as revealed in the Al Jazeera report, he said, is how naturally the officials involved spoke about this issue.
He stressed that no one blames the Cypriot people for this practice, but stressed that "there is a culture among a portion [of the Cyprus public] that considers these transactions normal."
"The damage done to Cyprus' reputation is not going to be remedied by changing some legislation," he added, noting that "it could have long-term economic consequences."
Giegold, who is among the MEPs who are particularly vocal against citizenship schemes for investors in several countries, said it is time for the Commission to consider all citizenship and residence schemes, including that of Portugal which is set to assume the EU Presidency in 2021. [Reporting by Kathimerini Cyprus' Yiorgos Kakouris]