President Anastasiades must have had the wind knocked out of his sails by the international embarrassment suffered by Cyprus this week as he arrived in Brussels for Thursday’s European Council. He was in no position to sit in judgment of EU inaction and demand measures against Turkey, as he had been doing as a matter of policy recently.
Only a few weeks earlier he and his foreign minister had been on the offensive, accusing the EU of double standards and of betraying its principles and values by refusing to impose sanctions on Turkey for its violations of the Cypriot EEZ. His government had also tried to force the EU into taking measures against Turkey by blocking sanctions against Belarus that all other member-states had fully backed. The behaviour did not exactly endear Anastasiades to the Commission, especially as it had promised the opposition in Belarus that sanctions would have been imposed promptly.
Relations with Brussels took a turn for the worse this week after the damning revelations about the citizenship by investment programme, which the Commission had frequently criticised Cyprus for. Early last year, the Commission issued a stern warning to Bulgaria, Malta and Cyprus about their citizenship programmes. Bulgaria terminated it, Malta made a commitment to ending it, while Anastasiades went on the offensive attributing dubious motives to the EU. “Cyprus is being targeted for the well-known reasons, either because of competition or for other reasons,” by countries that were also issuing passport to dubious characters, he said.
The government was adequately shaken to impose stricter criteria for the programme last year and hire international firms to carry out due diligence of the applicants in the belief that this would ease pressure from the Commission. This year it went as far as to pass legislation allowing it to revoke the citizenship of anyone found to have given misleading or false information in their applications. The tougher criteria failed to appease Brussels, with President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen bringing up the matter in her State of the Union address in mid- September, when she bluntly declared that “European values are not for sale.”
Nicosia ignored this clear reference to Cyprus, but it realised the Commission would not let the matter go, especially after last Monday’s damning revelations by Al Jazeera. There is speculation that Anastasiades decided to terminate the programme after hearing of Brussels’ intentions to carry out an investigation – hence the hastily-called extraordinary meeting of the Council of Ministers, which took the decision on Tuesday.
“We watched in disbelief how high-level officials were trading European citizenship for financial gains,” said EU Commission spokesperson Christian Wigand at a press briefing. “The Commission is currently looking into compliance with EU law of the Cypriot scheme in view of possible infringement proceedings,” Wigand added. There is a possible danger for Cyprus here, because the EU, according to European Council President Charles Michel, was trying to push through a law linking respect for rule of law by member countries and access to the EU post-pandemic recovery funds. Although this is primarily targeted at Hungary and Poland it could also apply to Cyprus given that the Commission was looking into compliance with EU law of the citizenship programme.
The government needs to tread very carefully and banish any idea that it can carry on ignoring Brussels’ position on the citizenship scheme. Regrettably this does not seem to be the case. Even the termination of the programme it announced from November 1 was not really a termination considering that, according to the interior ministry, 586 applications submitted by September 30 would still be examined as would any applications submitted by noon, October 30. But if the scheme had so many weaknesses and gaps that the government decided to scrap it, why would it examine almost 600 applications within the framework of the existing scheme? Announcing the scrapping of the scheme on Tuesday the government spokesman said the cabinet’s decision “was based on the long-term weaknesses as well as the abusive exploitation of its provisions.” But it would still be in place for 600 applications.
This disregard for Brussels’ reservations and objections can only make matters worse for Cyprus, which is already talking about the introduction of a new citizenship programme. Does anyone seriously believe that Cyprus would be given the go-ahead by Brussels for a new programme when we are defiantly persisting with the old one? We fear this behaviour would have eliminated the miniscule probability of Cyprus securing consent for a new programme. We can only express the hope that it would not also endanger the island’s access to post-pandemic recovery funds. This is why the government must be ultra-cautious and careful in its dealings with the Commission from now on.