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EU says citizenship 'not for sale' in criticism of investor schemes

(STRASBOURG) - The European Commission on Wednesday warned that EU citizenship "must not be up for sale" following controversy over a Maltese initiative to grant passports to wealthy foreign investors.

"Granting the nationality of a member state means also granting EU citizenship and the rights attached to it," EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

"Member states should only award citizenship to persons where there is a 'genuine link' or 'genuine connection' to the country in question," she added. "Citizenship must not be up for sale!"

She said the EU's executive arm was paying close attention to member countries which have set up investor schemes for granting citizenship, with Malta being the most recent example.

The Maltese citizenship project, proposed by the Labour government of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, would grant Maltese passports to foreigners willing to invest 1.15 million euros ($1.5 million) in the country, part of which is to be invested in real estate.

"It is legitimate to question whether EU citizenship rights should merely depend on the size of someone's wallet or bank account," Reding said.

Several MEPs also spoke out against putting a price tag on EU citizenship during a debate on the issue Wednesday.

German conservative Manfred Weber called for an end to such legislation, while French far-left MEP Marie-Christine Vergiat said putting citizenship up for sale would only encourage money laundering.

A resolution on citizenship for sale will be put to a vote in the European Parliament on Thursday.

Hannes Swoboda, the leader of the Socialists and Social Democrats group in the European Parliament, called for any reference to Malta to be left out of the resolution, arguing that it would be unfair to single out individual countries on an issue that "concerns us all".

Portugal, Latvia, Cyprus and Britain are among member states with existing schemes that grant foreigners residency rights in exchange for financial gestures.

Maltese Labour MEP Joseph Cuschieri defended his government's initiative.

"We need to have the courage to open the doors to those who want to invest in Europe," he said.

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