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Portugal defends ‘golden visas’ amid corruption scandal

Portugal’s Deputy Prime Minister Paulo Portas said Thursday it would be a mistake to stop offering wealthy foreign investors so-called “golden visas”, which are at the heart of a major corruption scandal.

“Ending the scheme would be a mistake from wich other countries that are our competitors in this area would immediately benefit,” he said while fielding lawmakers’ questions in parliament.

“Just in the European Union, there are some 15 countries with rules that authorise residency linked to investment similar or comparable to ours,” said Portas, a minority partner in the coalition government.

Portugal’s Interior Minister Miguel Macedo resigned Sunday, just days after several senior government officials were arrested as part of a probe into money laundering and influence peddling around the visas.

In total 11 people were detained, including the head of the border police.

Under the scheme, foreign investors buying property worth 500,000 euros ($623,000) or more and keeping it for at least five years receive residency rights in Portugal and more importantly, visa-free travel throughout the European Union’s Schengen zone.

Portugal rolled out the programme in 2012 while grappling with a debt crisis.

Since its launch, the scheme has raked in more than one billion euros. A total of 1,649 golden visas have been granted, mostly to Chinese nationals.

“I don’t think Portugal is in a position to toss out the window an investment of this size,” Portas said, adding the government was ready to “improve and perfect” the programme.

The other options offered to get residency rights in Portugal include transferring at least one million euros into the country or creating at least 10 new jobs there.

The government’s critics took the occasion to slam the “golden visas”.

“Those who oppose immigration for poor people looking for work defend the pseudo-immigration of the rich. The immigration policy of the government amounts to the sale of visas,” Communist deputy Antonio Filipe said at Thursday’s hearing.