By George Jahn And Alison Mutler
BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) - Passport loopholes offered by three EU nations could be indirectly expanding the boundaries of the bloc — potentially giving nearly 5 million outsiders, mostly from Europe's poorest countries, the coveted right to live and work in the union.
The possible influx represents the most immediate challenge to the European Union, which is grappling with tight labor markets and a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. But those numbers could be swollen by millions more — immigrants or their descendants living in other hardship regions who are also eligible for EU citizenship under passport giveaways.
No reliable and comprehensive global tally exists of just how many people living elsewhere are eligible for EU passports. But the figures available suggest such passport policies could put a strain on the EU at a time when most of the bloc's nations favor putting enlargement on hold as they try to put their economic houses in order.
EU members Romania and Bulgaria are already handing out passports to ethnically linked groups or minorities outside their borders and Hungary plans to do the same as of January.
The main beneficiaries are citizens of Moldova, Macedonia, Serbia, Ukraine and Turkey — about 4.7 million people with living standards at a fraction of the EU average whose countries are years away from membership.
The figure was arrived at by adding up the number of Romanian speaking Moldovans, Slavic Macedonians, ethnic Hungarians living in Serbia and Ukraine and the number of Turks who fled Bulgaria to escape a forced assimilation campaign there during the communist era. All are eligible for EU citizenship under passport giveaway programs.
Others outside Europe and looking to escape hardship at home are also lining up.
Spain enacted legislation in January 2009 giving even the grandchildren of Spaniards whose ancestors left due to political or economic hardship caused by the Civil War the right to obtain passports from Madrid — and the response has been huge.
Spanish foreign ministry figures from January say that over the first full year of the law, there were 161,463 applications — 95 percent from Latin American countries — and that 81,715 were granted.
Total Latin American numbers are unavailable — but the Spanish foreign ministry has extended the window for applications by another year to December 2011, due to what it calls "overwhelming demand."
In Cuba alone, nearly 82,000 people have applied for Spanish citizenship and 36,415 have received it as of June 30, clearing the way for the lengthy and expensive process of obtaining permission to travel abroad — or leave permanently. Venezuela's Spanish consulate has handed out more than 35,000 passports as of this year.
Spanish and Mexican authorities were unable to meet AP requests for concrete figures on the number of Mexicans who could qualify, but 150,000 are estimated to be eligible. Of those, more than 14,000 people have been given Spanish citizenship and huge lines of passport-seekers form every day.
More than 2.6 million people of Italian origin — most of them also in Latin America — already hold Italian passports. And, like Spain, Portugal grants passports to children and grandchildren of emigres — most of them in sprawling Brazil, home to 200 million people.
Millions more worldwide are eligible for EU passports due to their origin. But for those in prosperous societies like the U.S., there is often little attraction in relocating. It's the world's have-nots who are drawn to Europe — and the citizenships offered to outsiders are like winning big at the lottery.
European policymakers are attuned to the need to replenish workforces as the population ages rapidly. Most EU nations approved a new "blue card" workers visa program earlier this year to lure highly skilled labor to fill growing job gaps — and pay for pension plans — across the 27-nation bloc.
But the fear linked to the passport giveaways is that they will attract people with little or no skills who then will burden the system instead of paying for it.
In a reflection of job and social benefits protectionism within the European Union, Romanians and Bulgarians — generally the poorest of the EU's citizens — are still required to get work permits in 10 West European EU nations. Austria and Germany have gone even further, placing the same restriction on Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Estonians, Latvians Lithuanians, Hungarians and Poles.
While all those limits will expire by 2013 at the latest, they mirror the reluctance of rich EU nations to open up to their poorer neighbors — some of the very nations that are now swelling the ranks of their citizens by passport giveaways.
Even in relatively prosperous Turkey, last year's per capita income was a quarter that in Germany, where the average yearly earnings equaled over $40,000. Moldovans, at the bottom of the scale, earned an average of only $1,500 last according to the World Bank.
In Moldova, where two-thirds of the population speaks Romanian, approximately 120,000 people now have Romanian passports. And the government in Bucharest says that another 800,000 of the nation's 4 million people have applied since Romanian President Traian Basescu signed legislation eight months ago extending Romanian citizenship to Romanian-speaking Moldovans into law.
Romania says it is merely giving back citizenship to people who were part of the country until 1940 when today's Moldova was annexed by Russia.
About 15 percent of the country's 4 million people already live elsewhere, according to the International Organization for Migration. And with a Romanian passport in hand, many will be changing their illegal immigrant status to legal residency — in Romania or further afield within the EU.
Basescu put that number higher, saying about 1 million Moldovans were working illegally in the EU. "We have an obligation of blood to support them," he told the AP.
Other EU countries have been careful not to publicly criticize Basescu and government leaders of other countries extending passports to outsiders.
Britain's Foreign Office said the issue of granting citizenship "is a matter for member states." Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi told the AP that "no foreign minister has opened this subject."
But clearly the prospects of a mass influx is a sensitive issue.
Sarah Mulley, of the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, says that even though passport giveaways are likely to have a limited impact in Britain, they could influence the already heated public debate about immigration and will "raise questions about how the EU coordinates policies between countries."
About 1.4 million Slavs in Macedonia — where the average yearly income is just over $4,500 — are also eligible for EU passports from neighboring Bulgaria, which considers them Bulgarians with a dialect.
And then there are Bulgaria's Turks. Some 300,000 fled or were expelled in the 1980s, under a communist campaign of forced assimilation. Although most remain in Turkey, all have either opened a fast track to the EU by reclaiming their Bulgarian passports or have the right to do so — even as Ankara continues its struggle with Brussels over EU membership.
Budapest, meanwhile, plans to offer dual citizenship — and passports — to millions of ethnic Hungarians outside its borders, including 300,000 in Serbia and about 160,000 in Ukraine — countries with annual per capita incomes of just under $6,000 and $2,500 respectively.
But it's the Moldovans, who stand to benefit most.
With her Romanian passport in hand, Larisa Saptebani is leaving for Italy in 10 days to work as a care giver. She has been promised 1,700 euros — nearly $2,200 — a month, a dream wage more than 10 times what her countrywomen earn at home.
"I can now work legally," she says, beaming.
Jahn reported from Vienna. Associated Press writers around the world contributed to this report.