June 20. 2024. 1:37

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Albania shelves cash-for-passports scheme under EU pressure


Bowing to EU criticism, Albania said on Thursday (16 March) it would temporarily withdraw plans for a so-called ‘cash-for-passports’ scheme, as Tirana attempts to defend its track record on its path towards EU accession.

The so-called “golden passports” scheme, promoted by Albania’s government in recent years, has been temporarily suspended, Prime Minister Edi Rama announced, speaking alongside the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell and Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi in Tirana.

“We have made it clear that we have suspended the process until the position is clarified at the European level,” Rama told reporters.

“There is a case in the European Court, but we will not bring it to the table (…) without seeing how the case ends in the European Court,” Rama said.

“If the Court decides against golden passports, this is a closed issue. If it decides in favour, each country will make its own choice,” he added.

‘Golden passports’ track-record

Changes were made to the law on public-private partnerships in 2022, adding citizenship programmes which would allow private firms to promote the scheme to foreigners.

Rama has defended the country’s potential scheme saying it has “enormous potential” and could bring significant economic benefits.

The EU has criticised Albania’s plan to sell passports and urged the government to abandon the scheme or risk Albanian citizens’ free movement in the EU. The European Commission reiterated its call for the scheme to be halted in its annual enlargement report in October.

Similar citizenship schemes in North Macedonia and Montenegro have also faced criticism from the EU.

Malta, Cyprus, and Bulgaria all offered similar schemes that see citizenship up for grabs in return for investment in real estate, business, or government funds.

Sofia and Nicosia have shelved their schemes, while Valetta continues to offer passports but will now face legal proceedings initiated by the EU executive.

The schemes have long been controversial as they also offer all the benefits that come with citizenship of an EU member state, including freedom of movement and residence.

Rule of law looms large as Albania takes first steps toward EU membership

The challenging issues of the rule of law will be addressed head-on in Albania’s EU accession negotiation, the European Commission said on Tuesday (19 July) as the Western Balkan country took its first step on the long road toward EU membership.

Numerous investigations by journalists revealed that citizens from countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia, including individuals under sanctions, linked with issues including money laundering, fraud, and embezzlement, were able to purchase de facto European citizenship.

Rama, however, also said Albania would not give up on another controversial economical scheme, one on “fiscal amnesty”.

Under the scheme, any foreign citizen or Albanian can deposit up to €2 million in non-declared money into the Albanian banking system while enjoying legal immunity and a 5-10% tax.

A previous version of the law was slammed by the International Monetary Fund and the EU, and subject to tense discussions with the EU and various diplomatic missions in Tirana.

The main concern from international stakeholders is that criminals will use the scheme to launder the proceeds of crime, such as drug and human trafficking, with total impunity.

Rama, however, stressed that such fears are “misunderstandings” and that adequate safeguards will be in place.

‘Clear strategic direction’

Thursday’s talks were aimed at assessing the progress of Albania’s EU accession process to the bloc.

“We want to send a clear and strong political signal of the EU’s commitment to Albania’s path towards EU membership,” Borrell said, speaking alongside Rama.

“The main message of this meeting is our unequivocal commitment to the integration of Albania into the EU: We see and welcome the clear strategic direction of Albania towards the EU,” Borrell added.

EU leaders agreed for Tirana to open accession negotiations in June 2022, with the country in the process of aligning its laws with the EU legislation.

But there are many areas that require reform, including the rule of law, corruption, and media freedom, according to the latest European Commission progress report published in October 2022.

Speaking about Albania’s progress in the area of rule of law and judiciary reforms, Varhelyi said that “key issues of the fundamentals clusters are going ahead”.

“According to the EU’s new enlargement methodology, the EU should be ready to deliver on its promises when the promises on the side of a candidate country are delivered,” Varhelyi said in reference to the bloc’s economic and investment plan for the region.

Asked by reporters about a deadline for EU accession, Varhelyi said the bloc “would not work with deadlines” as “deadlines as such do not lead to delivery”.

“What leads to delivery is work on the ground (…) everything is dependent on how fast the conditions for the membership are delivered by Albania,” he added.