After 15 years in opposition, the left-wing Partit Laburista (PL) has regained a majority in Malta’s parliament. Although PL initially opposed European Union (EU) membership, it promised to have an ‘active role’ on the European level, especially when Malta takes over the EU president in the first half of 2017.
Traditionally, Maltese elections and referenda are an odd event. Voters are encouraged to send free messages to convince friends to choose the right party. Billboards are placed on almost every corner of the street. Pedestrians are questioned and potential voters even called on the day of the election. Partisans of the winning party use lorries to celebrate the victory while driving through Malta’s streets. Party events look like music festivals. Sometimes, there are even outbreaks of violence.
One of the causes of the intense electoral process is the deeply divided political system in Malta. It sets both parties, PL and the conservative Partit Nazzjonalista (PN), up against each other. Until the elections of 2013, the difference in the number of seats between the winning and losing parties was less than five out of a total of up to 69 seats. The last time a third party gained a seat was in 1950. Strangely, few Maltese do not vote and the country has one of the world’s highest turnout rates. Ninety-three percent of people voted in the 2013 elections.
The EU and Malta
It was no different for the referendum on EU accession in 2003. Just under 91 per cent of the eligible voters cast their ballot. The ruling party PN defended membership of the EU while the PL fiercely opposed it. With only 53.6 per cent of the voters in favour of accession, a tight majority was reached. The approval rate was by far the lowest in the EU’s enlargement round of 2004.
EU matters did not take a central role in the 2013 elections, despite Malta’s recent membership. Other issues such as the high electricity prices were debated more. One exception was the presidency over the Council of the European Union, to be taken by Malta in January 2017. Both parties promised to have a leading role during the presidency, despite PL’s earlier opposition to EU accession.
An odd EU member
Malta is an odd Member State. It’s the smallest by size and population and the only one whose language has strong ties with the Arabic languages. Maltese is the least spoken official EU language. There are as much churches as there are days in a normal year and it takes five years of living apart before being legally able to divorce, confirming the religious convictions of the predominantly Catholic Maltese.
Foreign intervention is more of a rule than an exception in Malta’s history. The country has been conquered and governed by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, the Knights of Malta, France, the British Empire and many others. In only half a year in the Second World War, Malta was bombed more than London in the whole war. When it became independent in 1964, the Maltese needed to forge a new identity after centuries of foreign dominion.
Pros and cons
Despite Malta’s history of foreign dominion, it managed to negotiate its accession to the EU well. The country can send five Members to the European Parliament after European elections, meaning one per approximately 80,000 inhabitants. Germany, for instance, has one per more than 830,000. In the Council of Ministers, Malta has around nine times more voting rights than it should have according to its share in the population of the EU. Another positive aspect of the membership is the increase in number of tourists, up to 1.2 million each year, there are just 450,000 inhabitants.
However, accession to the EU is not only positive. The surge in tourism has negative side effects and many Maltese feel the island attracts illegal immigrants even more than before. In this context, the progressive PL defended a harder stance on immigration than the conservative PN. Another issue in Malta’s relation to the EU is the possible discrimination in the bus fare prices. Although there are almost 900 cars per square kilometer (the EU’s second, the Netherlands, has 112 per square kilometer), the public bus system is still intensively used. For the use of these buses, non-residents are charged a higher price for the fare. The European Commission has filed a complaint against this arrangement. The Government defended its policy in February 2013 but the outcome is not yet decided.
When the budget needed to be voted, one MP of the ruling party opposed the budget, which resulted in the new elections. That one MP could trigger elections is an example of Malta’s political division that has characterised the country since its independence. This division has consequences for Malta’s relation with the EU. It might hinder a rational debate about the pros and cons of membership. With the recent rise in Euroscepticism, one might wonder what the concrete plans of the new Prime Minister, former MEP Joseph Muscat, will be. Only the future can tell.