Portugal’s “golden goose” visa programme hits the skids

After the scandal of corruption that hit Golden Visas in November, a new bolt from the blue has sent shockwaves through the programme. SEF border controls agency declared on Monday that it has suspended emission of all visas because new legislation brought in at the beginning of the month has created a “legal vacuum”. With deafening silence from the programme’s usually vociferous champion, deputy prime minister Paulo Portas, the Resident has been informed that today’s Council of Ministers will be concentrating on how to find a way out of the problem – and fast.

Golden Visas represent a huge “fast track” to economic growth. They have already seen over €1.5 billion channelled into the country by hundreds of foreign investors, but many more are clamouring to be allowed in – and for now they are being forced to wait in the cold.

The country’s property and construction sectors are in uproar. “How could this have been allowed to happen,” Luís Lima of APEMIP (the association of professional estate agents) has thundered.

“It’s lamentable,” he declared hours after the news came through. And in the wake of the scandal that saw multiple arrests in the name of Operation Labyrinth in November, it is “yet another stumbling block” that could send investors scuttling. 

Lima’s frustrations were echoed by the construction federation which stressed Portugal simply “cannot afford to waste so much money” in potential investment.

But, reading between the lines, it would appear that solutions are in hand.

Even before a statement from Portugal’s interior ministry, the Resident spoke to an estate agent in Lisbon whose business has thrived as a result of the Golden Visa programme and who claimed to have inside knowledge that today’s (Thursday) Council of Ministers was going to be committed to defining all the grey areas that SEF is complaining about.

“The first thing I did this morning was consult the lawyers that represent most of our clients, and their opinion was that the programme will end up being better as a result,” Charles Roberts of Fine & Country told us on Tuesday.

By Wednesday, the interior ministry had announced it would be publishing the “regulating diploma” that would lift SEF’s suspension “very soon”.

A more precise timescale was not forthcoming, but it has to be fast as the executive director of Portugal’s resorts association Pedro Fontainhas has suggested Portugal could be losing €40 million a month for every month that the programme remains suspended.

Talking to Rádio Renascença, Fontainhas explained that if one considers that on average 80 visas were being processed every month, each representing a minimum investment of €500,000, then the maths is easy.

But the truth is the programme has been floundering for months.

Despite the fact that international consultants Henley & Partners rated Portugal’s Golden Visa scheme “the best in the world” earlier this year, SEF has been sitting on a veritable go-slow since Paulo Portas announced the scheme was being “widened” to embrace science and the arts, and encourage urban redevelopment. 

“It all sounded lovely,” Charles Roberts explained. “But none of it had been properly thought through. 

“SEF, which is effectively a processing factory, found itself up against so many fuzzy areas that it opted to withdraw labour until the government defines things properly.”

Online notíciasaominuto pointed out that this was the third time that legislation governing Golden Visas has been changed and that “pertinent doubts” still remained over key issues, including how long foreigners holding visas should remain in the country.

As Charles Roberts told us earlier this year “99.9% of people issued golden visas won’t live in this country” anyway.

The fast-track residency visa giving foreigners freedom of movement throughout Schengen space is “just a piece of paper”, he told us. “A Plan B for a rich person who lives in a country that is politically, religiously or economically unstable and who needs to know they can get on a plane if they have to and go somewhere else.

“We are talking about multi-millionaires who will game away the money they spent on a property the day after they bought it.”

Roberts’ conviction that “everything will soon be brought back on track” was echoed in the Algarve where real estate agents are apparently unphased by the furore that has been widely covered by national television news.

The Algarve has benefitted to a “certain extent” from the programme, a source told us, but it is comfortably buoyed by its more traditional market of second home-buyers and retirees.

Thus as the Council of Ministers battles to coax SEF back to work on Golden visas, one wonders why there has been no word from the self-styled “father” of the programme, Paulo Portas – the man who stressed that if Portugal did not catch foreign investment, other countries would. Could he be blowing his nose theatrically into a handkerchief, we wondered.

“Almost certainly!” Charles Roberts agreed.

By NATASHA DONN [email protected]

Photo: Deputy prime minister Paulo Portas, the father of Golden Visas in Portugal, had not said a word about the suspension of the programme at the time of going to press on Wednesday