There is more than one kind of ‘worth’

If the Muscat administration wants to live up to its earlier promise of a just and equitable society, it cannot focus exclusively on the mega-wealthy to the exclusion of all other categories when it comes to citizenship

MaltaToday cartoon by Mark Scicluna
MaltaToday cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The apparent success of the controversial IIP (cash-for-citizenship) scheme seems to vindicate what is arguably the Muscat administration’s single most criticised measure to date.

Following so much criticism and opprobrium, Christian Kälin, chairman of the scheme’s operators Henley and Partners, was perhaps entitled to revel in the news that it has already attracted €100 million in investment in the first few months of operation.

“The Malta Individual Investor Programme was carefully developed and constructed to ensure that it would be highly attractive to the right kind of individuals,” he said. “The early success of the programme is testament to its viability and security, and gives a clear indication of the significant benefits that it will bring to the country of Malta.”

Certainly, the benefits of €100 million in direct or indirect investment cannot be ignored. And leaving aside concerns about the underlying principle, the government clearly needed to think outside the box in order to come up with solutions to the greatest challenge facing any country: creating wealth.

Nonetheless, Kälin’s statement also betrays the fact that ‘success’, in this instance, is being measured only in money. By “the right kind of individuals”, what he clearly meant to say was “the wealthiest individuals possible”; and this in turn points towards an inherent unfairness to the system created by the Muscat administration, which uses a very different yardstick to assess the ‘worth’ of other, less fortunate individuals.

This was in fact one of the chief complaints directed at the IIP scheme in its earlier incarnations (i.e., before being amended to meet the European Commission’s approval). It was variously pointed out, even internationally, that the same administration which turned nationality into a tradable commodity run on monetary lines, also made the naturalisation of other categories of immigrants – even perfectly legal immigrants – as difficult as possible.

Perhaps the most caustic in their criticism of the IIP scheme were among Malta’s expatriate community: some of whom had been made to wait years for citizenship, or were denied it altogether, even though many of the applicants were fully integrated, gainfully employed and paying taxes in Malta.

In the case of asylum seekers the present government has extended the same treatment even to the children and subsequent descendants of asylum seekers, who will have been born in Malta and passed through the local education system. This newspaper argued at the time, and still maintains, that these people should be provided with legal channels to eventually apply for citizenship, provided that the relevant conditions of eligibility are met. Not only would this create at least the semblance of a level playing field, but there are also economic arguments to support the naturalisation of migrant workers across the spectrum of economic brackets.

The world’s richest may be the declared targets of the IIP citizenship scheme, but there are other lacunae in Malta’s job market for individuals of lesser ‘worth’ (to stick to the rather unfortunate terminology used by such citizenship-by-investment schemes). All too often these voids are filled by unregistered migrant workers who make no direct contribution to the country’s coffers, and who are sometimes subjected to work conditions that would be unacceptable by legal standards. Offering such people an opportunity to regularise their position would clearly bring economic advantages of its own: not perhaps as immediately enticing as direct foreign investment, but it would be a form of investment in itself.

From the outset this newspaper argued that a number of conditions were needed to fully legitimise the IIP scheme. These include that all transactions are conducted in full transparency; that the recipients have at least some form of bond to the host country that goes beyond mere cash investments; and – most important of all – that the same scheme formed part of a wider reform of Malta’s immigration policy, that would also address the exigencies of other categories of potential Maltese citizens.

The government was eventually pressured by the commission into conceding the first two of these demands – by removing the secrecy clause, and introducing a (very brief) residency requirement – but the third remains unaddressed. Other areas of concern likewise remain: though the major demands for transparency and due diligence have been met, the minister still enjoys discretion on granting citizenship to applicants who claim they are facing “politically-motivated charges”.

Given that there are already procedures in place to request political asylum in Malta, such discretion is plainly excessive. The implications are that a minister can simply waive legal procedure at will in individual cases.

This means that despite the purely monetary success of the scheme – an important aspect, no doubt, but certainly not the only dimension to the issue – there are still individual areas of concern that need to be addressed. If the Muscat administration wants to live up to its earlier promise of a just and equitable society, it cannot focus exclusively on the mega-wealthy to the exclusion of all other categories.

Successful or otherwise, the IIP scheme still needs to be rationalised as part of a wider reform of asylum and naturalisation procedures affecting all types of applicants equally. Only then will the Maltese government put the spectre of injustice behind it once and for all.

More in Editorial