This blog post is a brief presentation of my dissertation (2020), which focuses on the real estate purchases associated with the residence permits of third-country nationals, also known as “Golden Visas”. Although the outcomes of the Golden Visa programs are very important in political, social, financial, and legal terms and have provoked an intense dialogue within the European Union and within their countries of application, the available data are still limited. This is especially true for the Greek context, illustrating the importance of such studies as well as the need for more evidence-based research.
The Golden Visa program was created in Greece in 2013. From 2017 until 2019, the program experienced a significant boom (86% increase between 2017 and 2018 and an 85% increase between 2018 and 2019). The percentages are even higher should we take into consideration the residence permits of the investors and their families combined (101% and 99% increase respectively). The factors that contributed to the attractiveness of the program could be categorized into four groups:
- external variables beyond the influence of the program (e.g. slowdown of Chinese economy, coup in Turkey, and political instability in the Middle East);
- endogenous advantages of Greece due to its unique geography/ history/ culture;
- attractiveness based on the various aspects of the program (e.g. very low price – 250,000€, the possibility of not residing in Greece obligatorily, duration of the program at 5 years with the possibility of unlimited renewals as long as the applicant holds/owns the property, the possibility of purchasing multiple properties to complete the minimum amount as well as the possibility of issuing a residence permit for both ascendants and descendants);
- conjunctural factors related to the specific space-time context in Greece (e.g. political stability after 2016, low market prices due to financial crisis, and high returns on rents).
The increasing success of the program was violently halted by the outbreak of the pandemic (COVID-19) and the subsequent restrictions on global mobility. Only a few hundreds of Golden Visas were issued during 2020 (less than 500), whose applications were probably submitted before 2020. Nevertheless, according to experts, upon returning to the pre-pandemic “normality”, the program will recover, regaining investment interest.
The Golden Visa boom, in combination with the explosive increase of tourist interest (e.g. Athens as a city break destination and increase of short-term rentals) and the economic crisis that had created “opportunities” in the real estate market for extraction of surplus-value, resulted in significant spatio-social consequences. Not only did the available housing stock for long-term leases decrease, but also rental prices increased dramatically. The direct result of the above conditions was increased housing insecurity for a large amount of the population, who saw declines in their disposable income through rent increases (including evictions and displacement of residents from various areas of the city). The central conclusion of the research is the intensified restructuring of land since there are changes both with regards to ownership status and its usage, increasingly being oriented to investment purposes, putting the right to the city and decent housing under question. The restructuring of land exacerbated social inequalities between locals/tenants and wealthy migrant investors.
According to the research, people who are attracted by the Golden Visa program are people of high financial income (e.g. business owners, senior executives) with an interest mainly to rent the properties or to reside in Greece during the holidays. The investors’ top countries of origin are China, Russia, and Turkey, accounting for 85% of all investors. Applicants do not have the right to work and they have to submit proofs of private insurance schemes (both the applicants and the members of their family). Some Chinese applicants already own other properties in Europe using similar “Golden Visa” programs and therefore have the right to move freely in Europe, reinforcing the view of “citizenship/residency shopping”, i.e. strategies to obtain multiple benefits based on diverse investments in each country.
It could be argued that the “Golden Visa” programs are modern legal avenues for middle and upper socioeconomic strata to overcome technocratic and administrative obstacles in their mobility. In contrast to the “demonized” mobility of the “poor”, the mobility of the globalized subject is considered an important asset, since it supports domestic consumption and local and global entrepreneurship. It is the ability of these subjects to move that gives them opportunities to accumulate capital beyond the narrow geographical boundaries of their original nationality (Ong, 2005). In essence, these programs allow the wealthy and their households to maintain transnational lives in a world where capital crosses borders more easily/ freely than citizens can. These programs create what Barbulescu calls “global mobility corridors” (2018).
Apart from the amount required to obtain a Golden Visa in Greece (250,000 euros) and the specificities of the program (not giving the right to work) – which shed light on the socio-economic level of the prospective investors – privileged mobility is also highlighted through other indirect channels. For example, according to the research, the competent public authorities responsible for administering the caseload of the residence permits usually prioritize the Golden Visa applications over other residence permit applications. Therefore, the element of privileged mobility does not only relate to the socio-economic condition of the potential investors but also to their discreet treatment by the competent authorities.
On a symbolic level, it is worth mentioning the following points, taking into consideration that Greece experienced one of the largest population movements since World War II mainly with refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Despite the fact that applicant-investors apply for a residence permit and the procedures are part of the Immigration Law, they are not classified as “migrants” even as “privileged” or “business migrants” but as “investors”. Since the word “migrant” has more negative than positive connotations in the Greek reality, the use of these particular words has important symbolic and political implications. Moreover, the research revealed that many actors including media promote the attraction of rich investors as a “panacea” for the development and economic recovery of Greece. In fact, some of them even used the term “hotspot” to highlight what kind of people and with what characteristics would be good to be “trapped” in Greece, symbolically underlining key manifestations of privileged mobility. This raises important questions about the key role of these actors in shaping public opinion on which migrants are “welcome” and which are not, as well as who and to what extent contributes to the economic and social fabric of Greek society.
Inspired by and placed in the wider literature of critical geography, the dissertation places important questions on who has the right to mobility, the right to the city, and the manifestations of different geographical freedoms based on unequal power relations between different groups. In recent years, there has been a heated debate around the restriction, on the one hand, of the Third Country Nationals’ right to migrate/move to Europe, while on the other hand, more and more investment programs, aimed at privileged groups, are created and implemented. In Greece, the Golden Visa program was followed by the Non-Dom program (est. 2020), which aspires to attract rich individuals who are given tax benefits, should they transfer their tax residence to Greece. Moreover, other laws providing benefits to non-Greek pensioners and to non-Greek (or even Greek to revert brain drain) professionals wishing to come/return to Greece are also legislated. The pandemic has boosted the digitalization of different work sectors and a discussion around “digital nomads” and how they can be attracted by States has started; furthering the debates around privileged mobility. It is evident that in a post-pandemic reality that dramatically changed the human geography of societies, new mobility-related inequalities emerged (e.g. lockdown, curfew, and access to vaccination) intersected with the existing ones (class, race, gender, ability), creating new layers of privileges and “new” groups of “winners” and “losers”. It is more important than ever to examine such inequalities and address them through activism, advocacy, and policy work.
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