EU country briefing: Malta

The following article is a part of a series of brief country profiles for the EU-28 ahead of the European elections in May.

Malta joined the EU in 2004’s “big bang” enlargement round only by a knife-edge, as just 53.6% of people voted in favour of joining the year before in a confirmation referendum due to the opposition of the (currently ruling) Labour Party (PL) – which rejected the results.

The Labour Party soon reversed its anti-EU stance and the country has followed a relatively steady pro-EU path since. It joined both Schengen and the Euro in 2007 and 2008 respectively.

With just 316 square kilometres in geographic size, the relatively remote island nation is by far the EU’s smallest member state and the smallest population in the EU with around 475 thousand people. Nonetheless, owing to its small size, it is the EU’s most densely populated member.

Its strategic geographical position in the Mediterranean, halfway between Gibraltar and the Suez Canal, affords it a geopolitical importance that has fostered its development as an important trading post, giving it control over transport routes between European ports and those of the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific.

69% of Maltese citizens regard their EU membership as positive, while 7% are dissatisfied. This compares with the EU average of 69/7%. In general, 82% of Maltese feel that they are EU citizens, and 74% of them support the Euro as common currency.

Most Maltese (75%) also expressed enthusiasm going to the ballot box in 2014’s European Parliament elections, as back then the turnout was way above the EU average (42.6%) and the third highest after Belgium and Luxembourg, both of which contrary to Malta have compulsory voting.

Economy

Malta’s economy has been booming with an average annual growth of 7.6% between 2014 and 2018. Projections by the European Commission, however, suggest a slowing economy with 5.2% and 4.6% growth in 2019 and 2020, respectively, although this is still triple the EU average.

Most of this economic pace has been attributed to a successful focus on exports, particularly tourism and remote gaming. Nonetheless, the country’s lenient method of selling Maltese passports (granting EU citizenship) and allegations of corruption, money laundering and circumventing the EU’s economic sanctions have prompted critique by the EU and left dark shadows over the economy’s nature.

Malta’s real GDP amounted to over €11 billion in 2017, a fraction of the EU’s total. Per capita real GDP was €20,800 in 2017, which is below the €27,700 EU28 average, although it has risen sharply, with GDP up over 50% since the nation’s EU accession in 2004.

Moreover, in purchasing power standards (PPS) its GDP per capita is very close (96%) to the EU average.

Unemployment also stood at a historic low of 3.5% in 2018, far below the EU average of 7%. Youth unemployment was higher (9.2%), although still far below the EU average of 15.2%.

Political context and direction

Between 1813 and 1964, Malta was a British crown colony. The island nation was also an essential part of the Allied effort in WWII, hosting one of its main bases, which led to heavy bombardment by the Italians and Germans, leaving the country devasted during WW2.

Due to this, in 1942, the country was awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian decoration. Five years later, self-government was granted and in 1964 Malta gained independence, becoming a parliamentary democracy within the Commonwealth.

Since then, two political parties, the Nationalist Party/Partit Nazzjonalista (PN) and the Labour Party/Partit Laburista (now PL, before MLP), have dominated the political scene. While Malta’s political system is designed as a more proportional one (single transferable vote), no other party has broken through since 1966.

Initially a Governor-General was appointed as the executive power on Queen’s Elizabeth II’s behalf, although actual political authority was exercised by the cabinet, under the command of the Maltese prime minister.

In 1971, Dom Mintoff’s Labour Party took control and redirected Malta towards Libya and the communist bloc, which led to the Constitution being revised in 1974 and the creation of the office of the President of Malta (currently George Vella, since 4 April 2019). Nowadays, the Prime Minister (currently Joseph Muscat) wields most executive power in practice.

The last British military base was closed in 1979, illustrating Malta’s distinct path. Following Mintoff’s resignation in 1984 and the victory of the Nationalist Party in 1987, Malta hosted the first historic summit between Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and US President George Bush in 1989, in which the end of the Cold War was proclaimed.

One year later, in 1990, the country applied to join the EU, albeit postponed in 1996 after the Labour Party (MLP) took over, which froze the application process. However, the Nationalist Party (PN), after regaining power in 1998’s snap elections, led the country to EU membership in 2004 and adopted the Euro in 2008. In the same year, the PN won a slender victory in Parliament elections.

The following year, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi’s (PN) government proposed George Abela (MPL) as the next president of Malta, which was the first time in Maltese history that a President from the opposition camp was nominated. On April 1st, the House of Representatives approved George Abela (MPL) as the 8th President of the Republic.

However, in 2013’s national elections, the PN saw a significant loss compared to the Labour Party (PL), which returned to power after 15 years in opposition. This led to the resignation of the nationalist leader Lawrence Gonzi, who had been the Prime-Minister of Malta since 2004.

After Labour’s victory, Joseph Muscat became Malta’s Prime Minister and secured a second term in the office in 2017 after calling a snap parliamentary election to counter allegations of corruption against his wife and some of his political allies. Before the snap vote was called, the PN demanded Muscat to step down over allegations of improper business dealings by his wife.

In 2014, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca (PL) replaced the long-serving president Abela with unanimous parliamentary approval. She became the country’s youngest serving president and the second woman to hold this post, after Agatha Barbara (1982 -1987).

As of 4 April 2019, George Vella (PL) was elected as the sole nominee in the indirect 2019 Maltese presidential elections and was sworn in as the 10th President of Malta, being supported by both governing Labour Party and the Nationalist opposition.

However, opposition leader Adrian Delia criticised that the government had not taken the opposition’s suggestion to nominate somebody from outside the Labour Party, at a time when national unity was needed. The person and powers of the President, which is elected by Parliament, remains a topic of discussion.

Issues of corruption, money-laundering and the refugee crisis are perceived as the country’s main challenges and expected to be the main topics of the European Parliament elections. Shortcomings in the rule of law have been criticised by both the European Parliament and the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe.

Moreover, Malta’s political system has been criticised in this regard for lacking sufficient checks and balances and for its weak separation of powers, in which executive power is mostly concentrated in the office of the Prime Minister.

After the Panama Papers disclosures and the assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia by a car bomb, nationalist MEPs called for the government’s resignation. The journalist killing had caused protests in Malta and all over Europe.

Galizia had accused Malta’s prime minister Muscat and two of his closest aides of connecting offshore companies linked to the three men with the sale of Maltese passports and payments from the government of Azerbaijan.

Even close to two years after the killing of the Maltese anti-corruption journalist, those who ordered the murder remain still at large, while others continuing her work in the EU’s smallest state are branded traitors.

Migration as a topic is likely to feature prominently in national debate, as the Nationalist leader Adrian Delia frequently criticises the government for not properly managing immigration into the country, which has been an important point of arrival for migrants.

The environment is also increasingly becoming a salient political issue, as illustrated by the FridaysForFuture protests that also led to demonstrations by students in Valetta. A Eurobarometer survey from last autumn already indicated environment, climate and energy as the second most important topic for Maltrese citizens.

Predictions

Malta is one of the rare spots on the European map where European elections generate a significant debate. Since Malta joined the EU, three EP elections had been held, and all three had been won amply by the Labour Party.

The country is equally well-known for having the highest turnout of any member state except for those that have obligatory voting systems. Yet, turnout in EP elections has been in gradual decline, from 82% in 2004 to 75% in 2014.

The turnout could be higher this year, as the EP election will coincide with local council elections. The ruling centre-left Labour Party should benefit from a high turnout, drawing much of its support from relatively poor southern Malta. The Nationalists, meanwhile, are struggling with their own internal conflicts.

They are also the only parties to have ever won MEP seats. Unlike 2014, when then they held 3 positions each, this year’s elections will likely hand 4 seats to the PL, which polls around 60%. The PL is part of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). The other two seats are set to go to the PN, which polls around 36-38%. It is part of the European People’s Party (EPP).

It is paramount to mention that in Malta, no other party stands a chance in the 2019 EP election unless it is allied with either the PL or PN, a situation which is highly unlikely. During the 2017 national election, the Democratic Party joined a coalition with the Nationalist Party, but such a scenario is less likely this year due to resistance from the latter’s new leader, Adrian Delia.

As a result, the Democratic Party, together with the far-left Democratic Alternative, may sap votes from the Nationalist Party, hence ceding Labour an even greater leverage.

While Malta does have its own Eurosceptics, making their voices heard in the two far-right parties Imperium Europa and Moviment Patrijotti Maltin, neither stands a chance of entering the European Parliament. Likewise, it is inconceivable that the centre-right Nationalist Party would forge a coalition with either of them.

Ultimately, even though the Labour Party seems to be the favourite by far, we have to remember that the nation is divided over supporting a party mired by corruption allegations and another one embroiled in a long-lasting internal conflict after losing control of the country in 2013 after approximately 25 years in government.

Simona Brăileanu works in evaluation and research in EU policies and holds a master degree in International Relations.

Andra Banea works as an evaluation and research project coordinator in international development and EU policies. She holds a master’s degree in international Relations and Multi-level Governance.

Martina Micallef works as an EU affairs communication officer and Brexit assistant. She holds a master degree in European Studies.

Robert Steenland works as an evaluation and research consultant in EU policies, as well as an analyst in EU politics.  He holds a double degree master in European Governance.

Daniel Matthews-Ferrero is a Marie Curie PhD researcher in the POLITICO programme at the University of Aberdeen, focusing on contemporary Western European populism. He holds a Master’s degree in European Interdisciplinary Studies from the College of Europe.

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