AN EU PASSPORT is one of the most desirable documents on the planet. Its bearer can live and work in 27 different countries, all of them prosperous and peaceful. Many have excellent food, too. In the birthright lottery of citizenship, those with a burgundy ticket marked “European Union” are among the lucky winners. Putting a pricetag on this is hard, but Cyprus has managed it. Invest €2.2m ($2.6m) in the island and a Cypriot passport with all the benefits of EU citizenship can be yours. Malta runs a similar (and, at just over €1m, rather cheaper) scheme for anyone tired of travelling with papers that open fewer doors.

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. In a recent speech Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s president, mentioned such “golden passports” as one of a list of threats to the rule of law in Europe, alongside judge-nobbling. Her annoyance is understandable. Since anyone with an EU passport can move anywhere in the bloc, a quick buck for the Cypriot government can create problems for the rest of the EU. Cyprus has made €7bn from the scheme since its launch in 2013, which amounts to a quarter of the island’s annual GDP. It has sold passports to plenty of rich but disagreeable folk, who are now free to settle in Germany or France.

Banning such sales would be popular. But it is no simple matter. Deciding who is and is not a citizen is a jealously guarded right of EU member states. All EU countries issue passports for reasons beyond the bog-standard naturalisation of those who marry a local or live in the country in question long enough to qualify. Some countries hand them out to curry favour with diasporas, atone for historic wrongs or create new voters. Being an EU citizen may come with common rights. But there is stark disagreement among the member states as to who should be allowed to be one.

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Some EU countries, particularly those with large diasporas, dish out the burgundy like a wine wholesaler at Christmas. Ireland allows anyone with an Irish grandparent to claim Irish citizenship. Given Irish enthusiasm for emigration, this leaves an uncountable number of potential Irish abroad. In Britain alone, an estimated 6m people would qualify for an Irish passport. That is about 20% more than live in Ireland, and thanks to Brexit, many have good cause to apply for one. Italy is even more generous to its diaspora. Anyone with a male Italian ancestor has a shot at an Italian passport. Along the patrilineal line, there is no upper limit, so the right goes back to 1861 and the creation of Italy. (The rights of descendents of women only start in 1948.) Between 1998 and 2010, 1m people obtained an Italian passport in this way. According to one estimate, 60m potential Italian citizens lurk around the globe. (However, many have settled in even richer places, such as America, and are unlikely to return.)

Passports can be given out for political purposes. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, has been the most cunning in this regard. After the first world war redrew eastern Europe’s borders, ethnic Hungarians were left scattered across neighbouring countries, such as Serbia and Romania. Mr Orban’s government has eased citizenship rules in an attempt to naturalise and enfranchise 1m of them. Between 2011 and 2016, 180,000 new Hungarians were created every year—more than the number of naturalisations in France and Germany, according to Yossi Harpaz in “Citizenship 2.0”, a book on dual nationality. Anyone who can trace lineage back to the right part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and is willing to learn Hungarian—a notoriously difficult language—can claim a passport. (Predictably, Hungarian language schools have popped up across Serbia.) The strategy has worked: when these new Hungarian citizens vote, they overwhelmingly support Mr Orban.

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Offering citizenship as a form of atonement is common. Austria, which normally restricts dual nationality, now allows descendants of Jews who were expelled, or fled, during the 1930s and 1940s to claim a passport. A similar right can be found in Germany, where it is embedded in the country’s constitution. Spain goes back even further, allowing descendants of Sephardic Jews kicked out in the 15th century to reclaim Spanish citizenship. (Descendants of Muslims kicked out in the same period have no such luck.)

A few countries take the opposite path and hoard their passports. Along with Austria, the Netherlands and Germany both have strict rules on dual-nationals from outside the EU. In the days when citizens were regularly conscripted to butcher their neighbours, restrictions on dual citizenship made sense. Now they seem outdated, serving only to leave immigrants—who may not want to give up their other nationality—as perpetual outsiders.

Who are EU then?

If passports can be seen either as a commodity or political tool, on the one hand, or a life-long civic commitment on the other, devising common rules for handing them out is close to impossible. Although member states are happy to slam Malta and Cyprus, they do not appreciate criticism of how they themselves distribute citizenship. Some may balk at the idea of limiting dual nationality. Others may be uncomfortable with the unknown size of the Irish and Italian diasporas who could turn up as EU citizens. How countries seek to atone for the Holocaust is a deeply inappropriate question for an EU ruling. A clear definition of who qualifies for an EU passport is the obvious next step for any passport-selling ban; it is also a nightmare.

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An Al Capone approach may be enough for the EU to crack down on the current schemes operated by Malta and Cyprus. Rather than stop them from selling passports outright, Brussels could pursue them via money-laundering legislation and make life difficult for the dodgier newcomers. But a determined state—and some canny lawyers—could keep the golden passport trade going. Granting citizenship is a huge power and member states are unlikely to give it up. That means they will probably have to tolerate their neighbours selling passports to plutocrats.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “The right to sell passports”

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