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Our View: Time for politicians to declare conflict of interest too

Conflict of interest has been the big political issue of the last few weeks, with the judges of the supreme court having become everyone’s target for their failure to recuse themselves from trials in which they had an interest. There was also the case of the chairman of the state health services (Okypy) Sir David Nicholson, also accused of conflict of interest by the auditor-general, who demanded the termination of his services. Sir David was allegedly in breach of the law which stipulated that Okypy members could not be linked with “any business dealing with health issues.”

President Anastasiades has taken it upon himself to address the issue of conflict of interest in the case of the judges and held a meeting at the presidential palace on Thursday night at which a code of conduct governing recusal of judges was discussed with the representatives of the supreme court. What a pity there is no code of conduct aimed at preventing conflict of interest in the case of politicians. Politicians are free to pontificate about issues even when they have a direct, vested interest as President Anastasiades did in criticising the European Commission’s unflattering report about Cyprus’ citizenship by investment scheme.

In its report, the Commission said that Cyprus, Bulgaria and Malta “currently grant schemes that grant investors the nationality of these countries under conditions which are less strict than ordinary naturalisation regimes,” adding that in these states “there is no obligation of physical residence for the individual nor a requirement of other genuine connections with the country before obtaining citizenship.” After the publication of this report, Anastasiades felt obliged to attack the Commission, declaring that Cyprus was being “targeted either for reasons of competition or for other reasons” which he did not specify. In other words, it was not an objective report, but there were hidden motives behind it.

The president may have appeared to be defending Cyprus, but there were also other motives for his patriotic stand – he was also protecting his family’s financial interests with his stand. His family law office, which still bears his name, arranges the issuing of passports for wealthy third country nationals while his son-in-law’s company sells luxury properties in Limassol to them. We have a state policy – citizenship by investment – that financially benefits the family of the head of state, so perhaps he should declare an interest when he is lambasting the Commission’s perfectly legitimate concerns and fears that authorities do not adequately examine the origins of wealth of individuals applying for passports.

In response to this, Anastasiades said the Commission’s “double standards must stop” before declaring that “we have the strictest criteria of the 20 countries that offer the capability to obtain European citizenship.” We have the strictest criteria for poor foreign workers that have been in the country for eight years and for third country nationals married to Cypriots who wait for years for their citizenship applications to be approved, whereas ‘investors’ have their applications approved within a few months. Criteria cannot be so strict, nor adequate due diligence carried out, if applications are processed in a few months. Saturday’s Phileleftheros reported that a foreign firm would be hired to carry out due diligence of applicants, suggesting the Commission’s concerns about inadequate checks were not groundless.

Anastasiades also spoke dismissively about the Commission’s concerns, saying that the citizenships granted by Cyprus were only 0.3 per cent of the 180,000 granted in total by EU countries. This, again was a disingenuous argument because the total referred to all citizenships granted, the overwhelming majority of which were not in exchange for investments. The president took a line aimed at justifying the continuation of a policy that was introduced in order to help the country attract foreign investment at a time when it was deep in recession. Cyprus is no longer in recession and the economy has fully recovered so why is the government persisting with this scheme? Is it because its termination would affect the business interests of the president’s family?

Is the president’s defiant stand, backed by dubious arguments, aimed at defending the interests of the country or those of his family? It is difficult to say, because this is a glaring case of conflict of interest. It also raises other issues relating to the president’s political choices. Is his hard line stance on the Cyprus problem, exemplified by his relentless efforts to demonise reunification, determined by his family interests? Has he placed his perceived family interests above those of the country by resorting to disingenuous arguments against reunification that would formalise partition? These are perfectly legitimate questions given the president’s insistence on championing a government policy from which his family is making large amounts of money. As for conflict of interest, it does not apply to politicians.

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