Selling Citizenship

Citizenship status has been a prized commodity since the days of the Roman Empire, which used it, among other things, as an instrument of foreign policy, offering certain categories of people (mostly free men) in its newly colonized lands the status of a citizen, albeit in various degrees and with various limitations. Then as now the value of the citizenship status was considerable, opening the way to reside, to marry, to vote, and be voted for, to enter into commercial contracts and to enjoy the full protection of the Roman law.

Nonetheless, it was not just all roses. The status of a citizen entailed also considerable obligations, first and foremost to serve in the legions of the empire, sometimes for decades, and to pay taxes in exchange for the services it provided. These two instruments created a strong bond between the state and the government—generally the citizens benefitted when the state prospered and vice versa.

Finally, the privileged character of citizenship helped to create strong psychological and emotional attachment of the citizen to the state. Since his allegiance to the state was, at least theoretically, a matter of free will, it also became a matter of honor to uphold. The only crime for which a Roman citizen could be sentenced to death was the crime of treason. Civis romanus sum was a statement of pride.

The modern loosening of ties between the citizen and the state, apart from a number of beneficial consequences, also altered the nature of citizenship, depriving it of some of its psychological value without diminishing its practical worth. It is a sign of globalization that most advanced countries these days are able to live with the idea of multiple citizenships, implying multiple loyalties, sometimes contradictory. Even without the institutionalization this has always been an issue, particularly at times of conflict and war, in countries with large numbers of immigrants, such as the United States or the United Kingdom. The fundamental equation, however, remained unchanged. Individuals owed their loyalty to the country where they chose to reside, and whose citizenship they chose to claim, rather than to the country where they were born.

In the postmodern world, the picture becomes fuzzier still. A number of countries today market their citizenship as a form of merchandise. No longer a badge of honor, citizenship has become a flag of convenience, like all those thousands of Panamanian ships whose captains probably could not find Panama on a map were it not for the Canal. If you have quarter of a million dollars of spare cash, you can buy yourself the citizenship of St. Kitts and Nevis, population 50,000. If you’d rather not get slow-baked on a Caribbean beach for the rest of your life, no matter. You never need to set foot on the islands, and they’ll send you the passport by mail. But before you do that, it might be worth to do some shopping around. Next door, on the island of Dominica, population 70,000, the same paper can be had for a mere hundred grand.

To have this kind of a passport is nice for sailing around the Caribbean but of limited use if you want to travel and work and live around the world. For such purpose, passports of countries like the United States are much better suited but it will cost you. A cool million in investment (half a million in the so-called targeted employment areas) will buy you and your family EB-5 visas and green cards with the prospect of citizenship several years down the road.

Even better, you can buy yourself a citizenship in one country and acquire the passports of many. This conjuring trick can be performed with the help of a passport of any EU member country, which gives you, for most practical purposes, citizen rights in all 28. The Irish experimented with this device in the 1990s but stopped when too many crooks, including “the pirate of Prague,” my countryman Viktor Kozeny, currently holed up somewhere in the Bahamas, wanted to become Irish. But it has been recently taken up by another island (there is something about islands that makes one want to dig a moat around one’s land-locked country), Malta, which will next month start selling citizenship, EU passport and all, for a trifling 650,000 euros. Other Europeans have grumbled at the plan, and no wonder. Since Malta is a member of both the EU and the borderless Schengen Area, the proud new Maltese can eventually settle in Tallinn just as well as in Valletta. And since this is clearly business rather than loyalty to a country we’re talking about, and since a large portion of the value of the passport is its ability to open a whole continent to its owner, other Europeans could be forgiven for thinking that they are entitled to a cut of the spoils of the scheme, estimated at a billion or so a year. Business, after all, is business.

The other small problem with the scheme is that if the trend catches on, all the rich people will eventually live in the United States and Europe, with a few beach bums in the Caribbean, and all the poor people somewhere else. Like any type of social engineering, this one can have unintended consequences, some of them not pleasant.

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