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In or out of EU: A Maltese historical perspective on Brexit


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In 1975, during my time at Oxford, I was eligible to vote in the United Kingdom’s EEC referendum. As one who had voted for Britain's membership of the EEC , I must say that, personally, I still strongly feel that Britain belongs in Europe historically and culturally, and that is where it should stay. Perhaps, then, Malta's case may be seen as a pointer:

The Malta Labour Party (MLP), led by Dr Alfred Sant, then in opposition, asked voters to vote 'no'or to abstain. There was a fear that Malta would be 'invaded' by Sicilians, lose trade preferences, and endanger its sovereignty including its neutrality and non-alignment, which were constitutionally protected. Having become independent as recently as 1964, why would Malta need to replace London with Brussels in 2004? These arguments elicited a strong response from mainly Labour supporters, weaned on Mr Mintoff's slogan 'Malta First and Foremost' since 1958, when his plan to make Malta part of the UK had come to nought

However, enough MLP supporters voted for EU membership to defeat their party's advice. Nearly 54% of the electorate voted in favour of joining. Interestingly, this was the lowest percentage of support in any of the other nine countries holding referenda in 2003, despite the fact that Malta also recorded the highest voter turnout of all these countries.

A small densely-populated island in the central Mediterranean, Malta had a history of somehow belonging to 'a larger whole', be that Aragon, Italy or Britain. That was a kind of anchor against insecurity and vulnerability. Resources were scarce other than human and geostrategic ones, notably the best sheltered deep-water natural harbours in the whole region. The internal market was very limited. Moreover under Mintoff's tight-rope jockeying and protectionist policies leading to scarciities, and a collapse in law and order, the EU was seen as a panacea that would ensure democracy and prosperity. The Nationalist Party in government has historically been pro-European, focused on Rome in more ways than one; it had demanded Dominion Status since the 1930s, opposed Malta's integration with Britain in the 1950s, and generally opposed Mintoff's unorthodox rapport with countries such as Gaddafi's Libya, Mao Tse-Tung's China and Kim il Sung's North Korea. It has long nailed its colours to the Western European mast. The prospect of pooling resources even in decision-making and securing infrastructural funds was also tempting.

Alfred Sant's party did not accept the referendum result insisting instead on a general election, which was promptly called by the then prime minister Dr Eddie Fenech Adami, and won (lost) more or less with the same percentage of the vote.            

While it was true that Malta became more exposed to immigration, including illegal immigration via Libya, the economy on the whole prospered and an air of normality returned to public life. A social market economy was restored and opportunities opened up or improved in various fields from tourism to financial services to shipping and bunkering. The University of Malta's student population increased tenfold from 1987 (when Mintoffism lost out). 

The general mood changed in favour of EU membership as Malta came to have the lowest unemployment rates and one of the best economic performances in Europe. Its 5 MEPs increased to 6 and elections to the European Parliament attracted much interest. (see my entry on Malta in Juliet Lodge ed., The 2009 Elections to the European Parliament, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

A measure of this turn-around may been gauged from the fact that Dr Sant, a Harvard graduate, is now leader of the Labour delegation in the European Parliament, while both the current prime minister Joseph Muscat (Labour) and the leader of the opposition Simon Busuttil (Nationalist) are ex-MEPs. An issue of intense contention gradually became one of consensus.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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