St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves has condemned the “bullying” tactics adopted by the European Union with regards to the controversial Citizenship by Investment Programme (CBI) used by several Caribbean to spur on their economic development.
Gonsalves has in the past distanced his island from the CBI, through which foreign investors are given citizenship of a particular Caribbean country in return for making a significant contribution to the socio-economic development of the island.
Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts-Nevis and St. Lucia are among Caribbean countries with CBIs and Gonsalves, speaking in Parliament said the European Union’s approach to the region’s initiative is tantamount to “bullying.
““And, Mr. Speaker, you have heard me say that although I do not support, on the grounds of principle and practicality, the matter of citizenship by investment — selling of passports and citizenship, and I am not making a partisan political point here –I have made the point publicly that the manner in which the European Union is going about addressing countries with that question is also one of bullying,” Gonsalves said as he made his contribution to the debate on the International Business Companies (Amendment and Consolidated) (Amendment) Bill, 2018, in which he accused the European Union of bullying small states into enforcing its tax policy.
“…we can have our argument internally but I am raising the larger question on which we must all be united in this honourable house and in this nation and in the Caribbean”.
Prime Minister Gonsalves expressed his “controlled anger” at the EU’s action and called for a CARICOM response, saying that while member states had acted individually, it was not too late for a regional response.
“I am very calm and controlled but that does not mean that I am not deeply annoyed and offended. In fact, the members of staff here will tell you I had a telephone conversation with the European Union ambassador. It was robust conversation. Well, robustly largely from my end because every issue she raised, it was of no merit practically or in international law or on a question of principle,” he said.
Opposition lawmaker St. Clair Leacock said that while St. Kitts and Nevis was standing up to the EU on the tax question, the language coming out of Basseterre was less robust.
“Because they have stood up for near 40 years with the Citizenship by Investment Programme,” said Leacock, a member of the main opposition New Democratic Party, which has said it will re-introduce a CBI programme if elected to office.
He said the 40-year duration of Basseterre’s CBI programme is about as long as the banana industry here, adding this goes to demonstrate “that the Citizenship by Investment Programme is sustainable because 40 years is as long as any agricultural monocrop in this country has survived, bananas being our best experience.
“And look at the difference and the quality of life that the people of St. Kitts are experiencing today: extra salaries, bonus salaries. We speak about seven flights here per week in St. Vincent; they are speaking about 10 per day in St. Kitts, half the size of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.”
He said that St. Kitts and Nevis enjoys these benefit “because they have stood up and fought back on a principle that there was significant financial and economic benefit to be gained from a legally constructed industry: the citizenship by investment programme that we have scoffed at.
“And we can’t have it both ways. We can’t say that here in St. Vincent we are taking issue with the OECD and the European Union with the same legislative industry, finance industry and then turn around on the other side and say the one in St. Kitts or throughout the region, the citizenship by investment is not good. “We can’t probate and reprobate. So we have to get our own act together. In fact, I think it is the closest the Honourable Prime Minister has ever come to agree and accept that even on that programme there is bullying,” he added.
During her contribution, another Opposition legislator, Kay Bacchus-Baptiste, said that the offshore finance sector was not very different from CBI.
“It is a way that small islands have to use to carve out revenue and at the time the offshore business was the way to go and I remember when much money was made from it and it is the same thing they are going to do with the CBI — citizenship by investment. We have to protect our industry and we have to find a way to deal with it.”
Bacchus-Baptiste said that when she says she sees no difference, she meant to say “that on the one hand, I support the international business but I don’t support the CBI, I think it is hypocritical” – an apparently reference to the approach of the prime minister.
“For example, a lot of these persons who had offshore businesses here, like Baron, got Vincentian passports. Say, for instance, even Ames. His was not offshore but I am saying it is hypocritical on one hand to criticise it and then give out passports to non-Vincentians investing and doing business here.”
Adrian Baron, naturalised-Vincentian, in September became the first person to be convicted for failing to comply with Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) of the United States. Baron is a former chief business officer and former chief executive officer of Loyal Bank Ltd, an off-shore bank with offices in Budapest, Hungary and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
But Prime Minister Gonsalves said there were “different regimes for granting citizenship”, noting that one of them is to be resident in St. Vincent and the Grenadines for at least seven years and have a connection of some kind.
“It would be business, it could be just living,” said Gonsalves, noting ‘and that is the manner in which, as I recalled it, that Mr. Baron obtained his citizenship.
“Not by selling a passport or selling it upfront,” said Gonsalves, who has ministerial responsibilities for the granting of non-automatic citizenship.
“In the case of Mr. Ames, under the citizenship act, if you…have invested substantially in the country, you understand the English language and all the rest and so on and so forth and you are here for five years minimum, you can get citizenship that way.
“That’s an entirely different matter than citizenship by investment. I just want to point out the legal difference, apart from other differences,” Gonsalves said.