08/03/2003 - Analysis
"Do you agree with Malta becoming a member of the European Union on 1st 2004?" This is the question on which 391,000 Maltese will have to give their opinion on 8th March. The small Mediterranean island is the first of the new members to organise a referendum on its entry to the European Union. Malta is also the only candidate country where one of the two major political parties i.e. the Labour Party (LP) that is on the Opposition bench, is campaigning against integration. The European question is the centre of a real debate and in spite of a slight lead by the "yes" vote overall in all the opinion polls the referendum result is far from being certain, since Malta is one of the most eurosceptic countries out of all the candidate countries.
Malta is thought of as being one of the richest candidate countries and will, if its population accepts membership, become the smallest States in the European Union. The archipelago of islands comprising Malta, Gozo and Comino today undertakes 75% of its foreign trade with the Union. Tourism constitutes its main resource and contributes 35% to the national GDP. The growth level is high at 4.1% of the GDP in 2002 (4.4% in 2001). The country has a revenue per inhabitant comparable to that of Portugal and in terms of ships has the third biggest trading fleet in the world. With the European Union's support the island has started to reform its maritime code to rid itself of the convenience flag label.
Malta gained 77 dispensations during the European Council in Copenhagen on 12th and 13th December including the island's neutrality, the maintenance of its 0% VAT rate (notably on pharmaceutical products), the limitation of the free circulation of workers until 2008, a 25 mile protection zone for its fishermen, the limitation of the purchase of property by non-Maltese and a protocol on abortion (abortion and divorce are prohibited on the island where 8 out of 10 inhabitants are practising Catholics). Apart from this the Maltese gained the right to hunt migrating birds in the Spring, a decisive compromise, since hunting is a true national sport practised by around 18,000 people. The Federation of Hunters and Trappers, led by Lino Farrugia was, until recently, one of the main opposition parties to joining the European Union.
The situation one month before the referendum
The latest opinion polls dating from mid-January declared that the "yes" vote was slightly ahead for the very first time with 53%. However, 30% of the Maltese said that they still had not decided. In the last Euro-barometer in Autumn 2002, although 45% of the Maltese thought their country's membership would be a good thing, a result that places the island fifth in the list of candidate countries, only 49% thought their country would take best advantage of integration into the European Union and 50% were confident in Europe. These answers place Malta in the top three countries in favour of joining the Union (with the two Baltic Republics: Latvia and Estonia). Malta distinguishes itself in particular that a very high number of its citizens say they are well informed about Europe (54%).
The Labour Party (LP) is against integration into the Union. Its leader Alfred Sant had in fact frozen the country's candidature when he came to power in 1996. The last general elections on 5th September 1998 were transformed into a real referendum on the island joining the European Union: They were won by the present Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami's Nationalist Party (MLP) who immediately reinitiated the question of the island joining the EU. Right now, Alfred Sant is defending the idea of a partnership with the Union rather than membership, pleading for the status of an associate State that would enable Malta to maintain its privileged links with the USA but above all with Libya. "The Libyan Foreign Affairs Minister told me that 35% of the agreements with Libya would be reviewed if Malta entered the Union," declared George Valla, the Labour Party's second in command. Similarly the Labour Party keep repeating that the island's membership to the Union would cancel out the advantages the country draws from tourism. Today 65% of the revenue from tourism benefits the Maltese directly; according to the Labour Party this would drop to 40% if the country integrated the Union. Alfred Sant also lays emphasis on the country's size as a reason to reject membership: "The Union's rules were designed for large mainland countries and will be a heavy burden for a small island such as Malta." The Labour Party is advising its electorate to vote "no" and even to boycott the referendum. Alfred Sant suggested last week for the referendum to be postponed until after the general elections in September this year and for the result to be confirmed only if at least 60% of the electorate choose to vote "yes" or "no". The government rejected the proposition.
For its part the Nationalist Party (MLP) is resolutely pro-European. Its leader, Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami, is confident of rallying all Maltese to the cause and would like all political parties to transcend their differences in the face of the decision that involves the country's future to such a degree. "Great opportunities lie before us. We can see this when we look at the countries that have already joined the Union and that serve as a reference to us for the future. We cannot say no to a future of progress and a better life for everyone. One of the parties believes it has a better solution (than joining the Union) but the choice is in our hands. A choice like this will not come our way again," declared the Prime Minister on 1st February. The Nationalist Party has focussed its campaign on the beneficial effects joining the Union will have on the Maltese economy and on how important it is for the country to take part in the preparation of European decisions.
Although the "yes" vote might be slightly in the lead nothing has yet been decided in a country where the elections are usually closely run affairs and where loyalty towards the political parties is especially high. Although the referendum is only a consultation the question of joining the Union has to have been decided by the next general elections in September. It remains that a negative result would be considered as a serious failure on the part of the Maltese government and for all of the Fifteen; and this is without thinking of the consequences it might lead to amongst the eurosceptics in the other candidate countries who are to vote over the coming months.