Stop me if you’ve heard this one: North American billionaires apply to Alþingi for instant Icelandic citizenship. They’re likely all crooked assholes, hell bent on buying up the country’s natural resources á la Magma Energy “Sweden” and at least one of them has a shady financial past. They have some Canadian lawyer doing their dirty work—Canadians have it out for Iceland, you know—who helps rich goons like this evade taxes; a real piece of work.
‘Who do they think they are?’ some question. ‘Icelandic citizenship is not for sale!’ others chime in.
The media was abuzz with allegations that the ‘North American billionaires’ were positioning themselves via possibly-for-sale-citizenship to purchase Iceland’s geothermal interests. In a nationalistic tizzy, the general population—myself included, as a non-EEA citizen set to depart for my next legally-mandated 90-days outside the Schengen Area—decried en masse: Thanks. But no thanks.
Canadian lawyer, David Lesperance, of Lesperance & Associates, approached Alþingi on behalf of ten clients in early 2011, proposing the government con-sider adopting legislation that would grant citizenship to foreign nationals who enter binding agreements to infuse long-terms capital into the country. His clients—seven Americans, one Canadian and one Russian—have already sourced potential areas for investment in the technology and fledgling electric automotive industries. He applied for their citizenship under Article 6 of the Icelandic Nationality Act, which circumvents the residency requirements of Article 7, pending review of his proposal by the General Committee and Alþingi.
According to Lesperance, whose work largely entails securing alternate citizenships and building passport portfolios for his oft-wealthy clientele—folks upon whom he has bestowed the moniker of ‘Golden Goose’—the attraction to Iceland stems from three attributes that are high-ranking factors for all his clients: geology (clean energy), geography (proximity to North America and continental Europe, with abundant existing and planned data cable capacity) and human capital (Icelanders are highly literate, educated and innovative).
As the Grapevine reported in early April, the government’s reaction was one of suspicion, with the Minister of the Interior, Ögmundur Jónasson, telling RÚV that “citizenship is not for sale.” He continued: “It is my opinion that Icelanders should tread carefully when old Mammon is about.” The Chair of the committee charged with handling such applications for citizenship, Robert Marshall, seemed more open to discussing the merits of Lesperances proposal, telling Kastljósið that the government should examine citizenship as a means of luring investment.
In a document titled “Draft Policy Statement for General Committee in exercising its power under Article 6 of Icelandic Nationality Act” prepared by Les-perance & Associates for consideration by Alþingi, the lawyer outlined the goals of his proposal as follows:
- To increase the human capital required to bring about the innovation cluster contemplated in the Digital Harbor Project;
- To ensure that process and procedures are in place in order to screen out unsuitable candidates for membership in Team Iceland;
- To make sure that Iceland is always competitive with regards to attracting suitable candidates;
- To ensure that processes and procedures are in place in order to avoid fraud committed against both Iceland and candidates;
- To ensure that processes and procedures are in place to ensure that commitments made by candidates who are seeking citizenship are fulfilled;
- To ensure that the process is seen to be transparent and of the highest quality in Iceland, internationally, and by potential future candidates;
- To ensure that all steps are taken to maximize the potential future benefits to the applicant.
Explains Lesperance: “When you attract these people, you have a commitment from them upfront. This might be a bad analogy, but if they are granted Icelandic citizenship and they get hit by a bus the next day you have still got investment locked in for ten years, specifically excluded from fisheries, energy distribution and generation, aluminium… those were my suggestions, but if there are other politically sensitive industries that I haven’t picked up on then [the government can] put a restriction on them.”
On April 28, Lesperance wrote in an e-mail that he had been unofficially informed by the local lawyer with whom he and his clients worked that they would soon be receiving a formal letter of rejection of the 10 applications submitted under Article 6.
“What we have found very disappointing,” he wrote, “is that this decision was made without any of the key decision makers (the Prime Minister, Minister of Finance or Minister of Justice and all members of the General Committee) accepting my standing invitation to fully question me as to the proposal that I was making, or even a cursory examination of the background or merits of any single one of the applicants. Rather it appears that both the concept and these applicants were prejudged based upon false accusations, which were planted in the media [and], which were directly aimed at exploiting the emo-tional trauma inflicted on the Icelandic public by the fiscal crisis.”
The Ministry of the Interior’s website has also updated with a statement on economic citizenship and rumours of Iceland’s adoption of such policies, which reads in part that “the Ministry wishes to state clearly that no changes of this type have been made in Icelandic legislation and it has no plans to propose amendments by which any exceptions would be made from the normal conditions for receiving Icelandic citizenship, either in return for payment or for commercial reasons.”
Lesperance has confirmed that his efforts to secure citizenship for his clients in Iceland have ceased and that he has been approached by other EU nations who have followed his efforts with Iceland in the media and elsewhere, who would be willing to examine the merits of his clients more closely.
Should Alþingi have proceeded with Lesperance’s proposal for factoring economic investment into the nations existing citizenship laws? Who knows; that’s up to the government to decide. Canada grants ‘investor visas’ to foreign nationals under similar circumstances. Austria grants citizenship. The precedent is there for Alþingi to consider and to weigh whether that option is right for Iceland.
But let’s have a fair debate about it next time something like this comes up.
Are there going to be some shady people eyeing Iceland as it continues to find its financial footing? Yes.
Does it suck that natural resources were privatised by the conservative government, thereby enabling Magma Energy to take ownership of HS Orka? HELL YES.
Will this same scenario play out again if Iceland considers investment-for-citizenship proposals? That is entirely up to the government.
“Immigrants throughout the history of mankind have always immigrated because they felt the place they wanted to go was better for them and their family than the place that they’re from,” said Lesperance. “So countries have to ask ‘are these immigrants a valuable contribution to our country?’ and ‘Do we have processes in place to screen out the bad people?’”
If you welcome a bull into a china shop, you had better blame yourself when things are broken; at the same time, you shouldn’t assume that every knock on the door is a bull.
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