EU launches legal action over Cyprus, Malta passport scheme

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic

The EU said Monday it will begin legal action against Cyprus and Malta over their controversial "golden passport" schemes for foreign investors, which critics say have been exploited by criminals.

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said that “infringement procedures” would be launched against the two countries on Tuesday.

“It’s very important to underline the fact that the commission has frequently raised its serious concerns about those schemes with the member states concerned, and the latest developments only reaffirm those concerns,” Sefcovic told reporters. “We will continue our intensive contacts with both Cyprus and Malta to make sure European law in this area would be properly respected.” Sefcovic said more details of the legal action would be announced once it is launched on Tuesday.

Cyprus and Malta are among the few countries that offer an EU passport for investment. Under the Cypriot scheme, the government handed out passports in exchange for an investment of €2.5 million ($3 million), though Nicosia is now re-examining all 4,000 successful cases. In August, broadcaster Al-Jazeera reported that dozens of people who had applied for Cyprus's golden passports were under criminal investigation or international sanctions, or serving prison sentences.

Malta, which started selling passports to wealthy foreigners in 2014, last month arrested former prime minister Joseph Muscat's chief of staff as part of a probe into alleged kickbacks connected to its own golden passport scheme.

Asked to react to the EU announcement, Prime Minister Robert Abela told journalists they could thank the Nationalist Party's MEPs for choosing to repeatedly attack their country instead of defending it.

“We will be defending Malta. Had it not been for the contributions from that programme, which we are in the process of winding down, we would probably not have been in a position to present a budget of this scale,” Abela said with reference to the budget presented a few hours later.

Nationalists MEP Roberta Metsola and David Casa reacted to the Prime Minister's claim on Twitter on Tuesday.

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