By Samantha Lo

You would think that there are certain things that just aren’t for sale. Love, friendship, freedom. I thought national identity was on the list of these “priceless” items as well, but turns out, it too can be reduced to a product with a price tag, added to the shopping carts of the ultra rich. These products are termed as “citizenship by investment” (CBI) schemes, in which the applicant makes a qualifying investment in a country in exchange for quick approval of the right of residence or citizenship of said country. These investments can range from purchasing real estate, to starting a business that will create a certain number of jobs. 

On the surface level, the system seems to promote a win-win situation where countries reap economic benefits while applicants increase their global mobility as a reward for their contribution to economic growth. Many countries that currently run these schemes are microstates with populations below a million, which might hugely benefit from enhancing and diversifying their economic composition. For example, money from CBI programmes made up 51% of the total revenue of Dominica, a microstate with just over seventy thousand people. However, these schemes are not exclusive to microstates desperate for investments. As of 2023, Turkey accounts for around half of the global CBI sales due to its relatively lower investment threshold, as illustrated by the minimum price of qualifying real estate being only 400,000 USD. For applicants, the benefits are straightforward: the ability to choose where you live based on how the global situation is developing. It is no coincidence that many CBI applicants live under authoritarian regimes, seeking to give themselves a back-up plan to living under their current governments. The schemes are also highly appealing for businesspeople who are able to choose countries with low tax rates and other favourable market policies to conduct their businesses and personal affairs. 

With the popularisation of CBI schemes among the wealthy, citizenship becomes commercialised on a wide scale, a phenomenon that inevitably perpetuates global inequalities. What these rich people are buying is not solely citizenship itself, but also what it accompanies – a set of privileges, benefits, global mobility, freedom. Parents who are from countries with a “weak passport”, but want to send their children to private schools in European countries can now apply for a CBI in Malta, which gives them access to EU countries almost instantly. There is now no need to undergo the time-consuming process of obtaining and renewing visas. Dr. Kristin Surak highlights how in some countries, foreign schools which offer better quality of teaching place quotas on domestic students. Parents can then use their purchased citizenship status to cheat the system, allowing their children a better starting point in education. In a world where those who are born with a silver spoon in their mouths are already much more socially advanced than their less privileged counterparts due to the connections they have by birth, CBI schemes only serve to strengthen this inequality. 

Other than the obvious impact of widening inequalities, these “golden passports” also shake the basis of the fundamental meaning of citizenship. Citizenship has traditionally been by its very virtue reserved for those who are members of a particular national community, who emotionally or politically identify with a country – be it place or people. Citizenship comes with not just rights, but also responsibilities, such as making informed voting decisions that affect the future of a country. Of course, it is common for people to have multiple passports for various reasons not related to wealth, like circumstantial birth in a country. However, what makes the CBI so impactful in redefining the meaning of citizenship is that it normalises the phenomenon of obtaining citizenship directly through one’s social and economic capital, thus rendering birth or emotional ties with a country irrelevant. National identity is not unique to those with connections to that country anymore – it can be on your Christmas wishlist if you’re rich enough. What’s especially striking is that many countries that offer CBI schemes are former British colonies, such as Saint Kitts and Nevis, which fought hard for their independence back in the 90s. Isn’t the selling of citizenships then, a reversing of the country’s historical efforts for national self-determination and identity? 

The cheapening of national identity is not only a domestic problem for countries, but it also often undermines their relationship with its diplomatic allies. Countries that sell their citizenships might indirectly grant applicants access to other countries without the former’s consent, with the Malta and EU case being a prime example. The EU has decided to take Malta to the Court of Justice of the European Union for its CBI scheme, showing how Malta’s decision has stirred distrust within the EU. Former Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos declared that EU “Member States must at all times fully respect and apply existing obligatory checks and balances – and national investor residence schemes should not be exempt from that. The work we have done together over the past years in terms of increasing security, strengthening our borders, and closing information gaps should not be jeopardised”. From any given country’s point of view, are the potential economic benefits brought by CBI worth the blatant risk of losing diplomatic allies? I doubt it. 

Despite the potential pushback, it is likely CBI schemes will be maintained because some countries still rely heavily on the revenue stream that foreign investment brings. However, what these countries do not consider carefully enough is that the widening of inequality might prove even more harmful than lack of investment in the long run. These countries are potentially making themselves vulnerable to exploitation by the rich who have access to levers of control over their resources, privileges and people. Thus, it is my stance that as global citizens, we take a pause on advancing national economic interests and take seriously the dangers of making the already-rich even richer. In a world where we are already combatting class differences, white privilege, male privilege, you-name-it privilege, the addition of purchased passport privilege certainly does not prove helpful. 

Illustration by Francesca Corno

Are some things truly priceless? Samantha dissects the proliferation of Citizenship by Investment schemes.


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