Background Notes: Malta

Contributed By RealAdventures

Malta is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with about 1,160 inhabitants per square kilometer (3,000 per sq. mi.). This compares with about 21 per square kilometer (55 per sq. mi.) for the United States. Inhabited since prehistoric times, Malta was first colonized by the Phoenicians. Subsequently, Maltese life and culture have been influenced to varying degrees by Arabs, Italians, and the British. Most of the foreign community in Malta, predominantly active or retired British nationals and their dependents, centers around Sliema and surrounding modern suburbs. Roman Catholicism is established by law as the religion of Malta; however, full liberty of conscience and freedom of worship are guaranteed, and a number of faiths have places of worship on the island. Malta has two official languages--Maltese (a Semitic language) and English. The literacy rate has reached 90%, compared to 63% in 1946. Schooling is compulsory until age 16.

Malta was an important cultic center for earth-mother worship in the 4th millennium B.C. Recent archeological work shows a developed religious center there long before those of Sumer and Egypt. Malta's written history began well before the Christian era. Originally the Phoenicians, and later the Carthaginians, established ports and trading settlements on the island. During the second Punic War (218 B.C.), Malta became part of the Roman Empire. During Roman rule, in A.D. 60, Saint Paul was shipwrecked on Malta at a place nowl called St. Paul's Bay. In 533 A.D. Malta became part of the Byzantine Empire and in 870 came under Arab control. Arab occupation and rule left a strong imprint on Maltese life, customs, and language. The Arabs were driven out in 1090 by a band of Norman adventurers under Count Roger of Normandy, who had established a kingdom in southern Italy and Sicily. Malta thus became an appendage of Sicily for 440 years. During this period, Malta was sold and resold to various feudal lords and barons and was dominated successively by the rulers of Swabia, Aquitaine, Aragon, Castile, and Spain.

In 1523, a key date in Maltese history, the islands were ceded by Charles V of Spain to the rich and powerful order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. For the next 275 years, these famous "Knights of Malta" made the island their kingdom. They built towns, palaces, churches, gardens, and fortifications and embellished the island with numerous works of art and culture. In 1565, these knights broke the siege of Malta by Suleiman the Magnificent. The power of the knights declined, however, and their rule of Malta was ended by their surrender to Napoleon in 1798.

The people of Malta rose against French rule and, with the help of the British, evicted them in 1800. In 1814, Malta voluntarily became part of the British Empire. Under the United Kingdom, the island became a military and naval fortress, the headquarters of the British Mediterranean fleet. During World War II, Malta survived a siege at the hands of German and Italian military forces (1940-43). In recognition, King George VI in 1942 awarded the George Cross "to the island fortress of Malta--its people and defenders." President Franklin Roosevelt, describing the wartime period, called Malta "one tiny bright flame in the darkness." Malta obtained independence on September 21, 1964.

Under its 1964 constitution, Malta became a parliamentary democracy within the Commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth II was sovereign of Malta, and a governor general exercised executive authority on her behalf, while the actual direction and control of the government and the nation's affairs were in the hands of the cabinet under the leadership of a prime minister.

On December 13, 1974, the constitution was revised, and Malta became a republic within the Commonwealth, with executive authority vested in a Maltese president. The president appoints as prime minister the leader of the party with a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. The president also nominally appoints, upon recommendation of the prime minister, the individual ministers to head each of the government departments. The cabinet is selected from among the members of the unicameral House of Representatives. This body consists of between 65 and 69 members elected on the basis of proportional representation. Elections must be held at least every five years. There are no by- elections, and vacancies are filled on the basis of the results of the previous election.

Malta's judiciary is independent. The chief justice and nine judges are appointed by the president on the advice of the prime minister. Their mandatory retirement age is 65. There is a civil court, a commercial court, and a criminal court. In the latter, the presiding judge sits with a jury of nine. The court of appeal hears appeals from decisions of the civil court and of the commercial court. The court of criminal appeal hears appeals from judgments of conviction by the criminal court. The highest court, the Constitutional Court, hears appeals in cases involving violations of human rights, interpretation of the constitution, and invalidity of laws. It also has jurisdiction in cases concerning disputed parliamentary elections and electoral corrupt practices. There also are inferior courts presided over by a magistrate.

Currently, Malta has no local government bodies and few regional branches of the central government, although local advisory councils are being considered. With the exception of the Ministry for Gozo, the police, the post office, and local medical dispensaries, government programs are administered directly from Valletta.

President--Ugo Mifsud Bonnici
Prime Minister--Eddie Fenech Adami
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Guido De Marco
Ambassador to the United States--Albert Borg Olivier de Puget
Ambassador to the United Nations--Joseph Cassar

Malta maintains an embassy in the United States at 2017 Connecticut
Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008 (202-462-3611).

Two parties dominate Malta's polarized and evenly divided politics--the Nationalist Party, led by Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami, and the Malta Labor Party, led by Alfred Sant. Political views are passionately held, and elections invariably generate a widescale voter turnout exceeding 96%. Political allegiances among the populace are so inflexible and divided that a 52% share of the votes can be considered a "landslide" for the winning party. Prior to the May 1987 election, the Maltese constitution was amended to ensure that the party that obtained more than 50% of the popular vote would have a majority of seats in parliament and would thereby form the government. The then-Labor Party government proposed this constitutional amendment in exchange for Nationalist Party (in opposition at the time) agreement to two other amendments to the constitution: The first stipulates Malta's neutrality status and policy of nonalignment, and the second prohibits foreign interference in Malta's elections.

The February 1992 election resulted in the incumbent Nationalist Party government being re-elected for another five-year term. The Nationalists won 51.8% of the popular vote, with the Labor Party receiving a postwar- low 46.5% share; the remaining 1.7% went to the Labor-breakaway Alternative Movement Party. With its victory, the Nationalist Party established a three-seat majority in the unicameral Maltese parliament.

Possessing few indigenous raw materials and a very small domestic market, Malta has based its economic development on the promotion of tourism and labor-intensive exports. Since the mid-1980s, expansion in these activities has been the principal engine for strong growth in the Maltese economy. The government's extensive program of infrastructural investment since 1987 has helped alleviate problems that plagued Malta's tourism industry in the early 1980s and has stimulated an impressive upswing in Maltese tourism's economic fortunes.

Tourist arrivals and foreign exchange earnings derived from tourism have steadily increased since the 1987 watershed, in which there was growth from the previous year of, respectively, 30% and 63% (increase in terms of U.S. dollars).

With the help of a favorable international economic climate, the availability of domestic resources, and industrial policies that support foreign export-oriented investment, the economy has been able to sustain a period of rapid growth. During the 1990s, Malta's economic growth has generally continued this brisk pace.

Both domestic demand (mainly consumption), boosted by large increases in government spending, and exports of goods and services contributed to this performance.

Buoyed by continued rapid growth, the economy has maintained a relatively low rate of unemployment. Labor market pressures have increased as skilled labor shortages have become more widespread, despite illegal immigration, and real earnings growth has accelerated.

Growing public and private sector demand for credit has led--in the context of interest rate controls--to credit rationing to the private sector and the introduction of non-interest charges by banks. Despite these pressures, consumer price inflation has remained low, reflecting the impact of a fixed exchange rate policy and lingering price controls.

The Maltese Government has pursued a policy of gradual economic liberalization, taking some steps to shift the emphasis in trade and financial policies from reliance on direct government intervention and control to policy regimes that allow a greater role for market mechanisms. However, by international standards, the economy remains highly regulated and continues to be hampered by some long-standing structural weaknesses.

For the first several years of independence, Malta followed a policy of close cooperation with the United Kingdom and other NATO countries. This relationship changed with the election of the Mintoff Labor Party government in June 1971. The NATO sub-headquarters in Malta was closed at the request of the Labor Party government, and the U.S. 6th Fleet discontinued recreational visits to the country. After substantially increased financial contributions from several NATO countries (including the United States), British forces remained in Malta until 1979. Following their departure, the Labor government charted a new course of neutrality and became an active member of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Malta is an active participant in the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the Council of Europe, OSCE, the Non-Aligned Movement, and various other international organizations. In these fora, Malta has frequently expressed its concern for the peace and economic development of the Mediterranean region. The Nationalist Party government is continuing a policy of neutrality and nonalignment, but in a Western context. The government desires improved relations with the United States and Western Europe, with an emphasis on increased trade and private investment.

Malta is an associate member of the EU. The government has made clear that its primary foreign policy objective is to seek full membership in the EU, under the right conditions, and it has actively pursued increased political and economic ties to the EU.

Malta and the United States established full diplomatic relations upon Malta's independence in 1964; overall relations are currently active and cordial. The United States has been sympathetic to Malta's campaign to attract private investment, and some firms operating in Malta have U.S. ownership or investment. These include two major hotels and four manufacturing and repair facilities, a water desalinization plant, and some offices servicing regional operations.

Principal U.S. Embassy Officials

Ambassador--Joseph R. Paolino, Jr. Deputy Chief of Mission--Charles N. Patterson

The U.S. embassy in Malta is located in Development House, St. Anne Street, Floriana (tel: 620424).

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