Is Europe-ish Good Enough?

Budapest, Hungary

Is Europe-ish good enough?

That’s a question many people are asking themselves as countries on Europe’s periphery toy with golden visas and citizenship by investment (CBI).

Malta is the only country within the European Union that grants citizenship through investment. EU countries that offer golden visas include Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg, Greece, Italy, Malta, Hungary, Belgium, Bulgaria, and Cyprus. At one time or another, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have considered CBI and golden visa programs as well.

It’s no secret that Brussels is strongly opposed to the idea of granting EU citizenship or residency rights in exchange for cash or other investments. Countries like Bulgaria and Cyprus that once offered CBI abandoned those programs under threats from the EU. Many smaller EU countries have scaled back their citizenship and residency offerings under pressure from the EU.

Recently, some countries that aren’t part of the EU—but hope to be one day—have considered or launched CBI and golden visa programs: Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Turkey. Agencies that claim to be able to help applicants get residency in those countries tout the potential benefits of future EU membership.

How seriously should you take those claims? Put another way, is it worth getting citizenship in a country that might become part of the EU someday?

I don’t have a crystal ball, but I do have a keen eye for politics. And that tells me that if your ultimate goal is to get citizenship from an EU country, you should avoid these wannabes.

Here’s why.

  • The more successful they are in attracting investment migrants, the less likely these countries are to be granted EU membership. CBI programs are addictive to governments (especially of small countries) because they generate revenue for little outlay. Once they start selling passports, they’ll be tempted to keep doing so even if it means they’ll lose their chance at EU membership as a consequence.

  • Some of the countries selling citizenship or planning to do so are already in the EU’s bad books. Turkey has been an EU candidate for decades. Under authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the chances of approval are slim. Greece dislikes the Republic of North Macedonia because it worries about separatism in that country’s own Macedonian areas. It’s almost certain to veto EU membership for Skopje.

  • Europe’s migrant crisis—or perceptions of it—would worsen if these countries were to join the EU. Many refugees from Africa and the Middle East target Greece as an entry point because of its long coastlines and the perception that it’s impossible to police its territorial waters. Adding new EU members in the Adriatic and Aegean areas would increase the risk of uncontrollable flows of migrants—which would make the EU less likely to grant them membership.

  • EU membership isn’t guaranteed. Hungary, for example, recently announced its intention to resume a golden visa program that was terminated in 2017 because of corruption. But in the intervening years, Hungary has become estranged from the EU over its friendliness to Russia and China and it’s increasingly authoritarian and nativist policies. Depending on how things go from here, Hungary could lose certain EU privileges, including rates of transit, residency and work.

The more general point here is that it's critical to be choosy and do your homework when looking for of foreign residency or citizenship. Jumping at the latest flavor of the month—like Hungary—could easily backfire on you if you're not careful.