Global Policy Forum

Is Icelandic Citizenship for Sale?

The offer of $15bn in exchange for Icelandic citizenship made by ten Canadian and US investors has sent shockwaves throughout Iceland. Although an attractive offer, considering Iceland’s debt to Europe, Icelandic citizens are voicing concerns over the concept of citizenship for sale- especially when many genuine citizenship applications are rejected.  This article investigates the tax evasion behind such citizenship requests and the implications cash for citizenship has on national identity.

By Alda Sigmundsdóttir

April 7, 2011

On Saturday, Icelanders will go to the polls to vote on the whether their country should repay the British and Dutch governments for the losses incurred when the internet bank Icesave went bust in 2008. The opposing yes and no camps have been running a fierce campaign battle, and the national conversation has been completely dominated by the dispute. Indeed, mention the word "Icesave" to Icelanders, and most want to run for cover. Which is why the matter of the "golden geese" last week provided something of a welcome respite.

The story took most everyone by surprise. Ten mega-rich investors from the US and Canada had contacted Icelandic authorities and were pledging to invest up to $15bn into our cash-strapped economy. All they wanted was a teeny-weeny favour in return: Icelandic citizenship for themselves and their children.

To the glib observer, the deal certainly sounded attractive. The tycoons' Canadian attorney, one David Lesperance, gushed to Iceland's national public-service broadcaster RÚV that the group had been so taken with the country that they wanted to "join team Iceland". They were, he said, "motivated beyond money" and were primarily looking to invest in the country for political and philanthropic reasons.

When the reporter sounded doubtful, he quickly added that they were also concerned about the number of nuclear power plants being built where they lived, and about their children being drafted into the military. Neither of which would happen if they lived in Iceland.

Icelandic citizenship, like citizenship in most countries, is usually not up for sale. Potential candidates have had to fulfil stringent requirements, including having lived in the country for a number of years. Currently there are two high-profile cases pending, involving women who have had applications for residency in Iceland denied. Both have widespread support among the general public and are currently awaiting the outcome of an appeal.

That the head of the Icelandic parliament's general committee seemed to support the tycoons' application – or at least not to outright reject it – has caused massive indignation. In conversation with RÚV he said that it should at least be given due consideration, stated (wrongly) that other countries, such as Canada and Australia, offered citizenship to solvent, wealthy investors, and reminded viewers that Icelandic citizenship had been granted under exceptional circumstances in the past – most famously in the case of former chess champion Bobby Fischer.

The outrage within Iceland was immediate. Blogs and social media sites seethed with disapproval. The general sentiment was that we'd been sold down the river before … we were duped by the bankers and "Viking raiders", and have recently seen a large swath of land, rich in geothermal energy, taken over by a Canadian company – a deal that has been met with vehement opposition, most notably from Icelandic singer Björk. We would not be duped again.

And anyway, why the emphasis on citizenship? If these people simply wanted to "join team Iceland", they were free to invest in most sectors. No one was rejecting their money. Mind you, they could not legally gain access to Icelandic resources (although the aforementioned Canadian deal proved that with a few hat tricks even that was possible) – and anyway, their attorney emphasised that this was by no means their intention.

Some light was soon shed on that particular matter with the discovery of a website run by Lesperance, entitled Flight of the Golden Geese – a bizarre conception that at first looks as if it was made for Old MacDonald and his farm. Prominently displayed on the page is a helpful video that can only be interpreted as propaganda for tax exile, and which in a mildly creepy fashion seems designed for a child.

In another location on the site, we came rather more directly to the point: "David Lesperance specializes in providing tax-efficient global multi-jurisdiction residence/citizenship and domicile solutions which enable his clients to maintain or improve their current personal and business lifestyles."


Could it be that the golden geese are flying away from US authorities, who are currently cracking down on citizens with offshore bank accounts? Those citizens will face hefty fines

unless they come forward and declare their accounts. Something that could likely be avoided with new citizenship.

I find it highly unlikely that the 10 golden geese represented by Lesperance will be successful in their bid for instant citizenship in the Land of Fire and Ice. However, the whole affair has highlighted a number of issues that it is no doubt healthy for citizens of all nations to consider. Issues such as: how valuable is citizenship and national identity? How ethical is it for economically vulnerable countries to "sell" citizenship in return for a financial injection into their economy? And are the golden eggs laid by golden geese really made of gold – or only fool's gold?

And once the Icesave dispute has been settled – one way or the other – the Icelanders may just have some time to devote to such questions.


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