Malta (Melita, or ‘Honey Island’, in Latin) was colonised from Carthage during the 6th century BCE. Through its long history, it has been subject to complex influences, as shown by its language: the Maltese language descends from Punic, with an Arabic element.
According to tradition, Hannibal was born in Malta (247 BCE). From 216 BCE the country was under Roman (Byzantine from CE 395) administration until captured by the Arabs in CE 870. In 1070 it became a Sicilian possession. By 1530 it belonged to the Holy Roman Emperor, who gave it to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, with a mandate to defend Tripoli against Turkish invasion. Building began on Valletta and its fortifications in 1565 after an unsuccessful Turkish siege. Sixteenth-century Malta was prosperous as a trading centre but by the early 18th century the island’s fortunes had declined.
The French army under Bonaparte captured it in June 1798, and used it as a base to invade Egypt, but the garrison was expelled by the British navy in 1800 and the island came under British administration. A move to return it to the Knights of St John (1802) provoked a petition from the inhabitants for British protection, and Malta became British under the Treaty of Paris (1814). Malta prospered as a free port, used by British shipping to the Adriatic and the Near East. In 1827 it became the base of the British Mediterranean Fleet. A packet service was established in 1832. After the Suez Canal was opened (1869) the volume of shipping increased. By 1905 the Naval Dockyard, together with British defence services, was the basis of the economy. Blockaded and attacked from the air during World War II, Malta was awarded the George Cross in 1942 by King George VI.
Demand for independence (though not representation) came relatively late to Malta, which had benefited from the UK naval presence on the island. In the mid-1950s Dom Mintoff’s Malta Labour Party (MLP), then in government, inclined towards integration with the UK. This was confirmed by a referendum in 1956. In March 1962 Malta became internally self-governing.
However, by the early 1960s, with nationalism and anti-colonialism sweeping the world, coupled with the decline of the UK navy, the mood had changed. The MLP, as well as Dr Borg Olivier’s Nationalist Party (PN), campaigned for independence, which was achieved in September 1964.
At independence, Malta entered a turbulent period. The dockyard was nationalised in 1968. Malta became a republic at the end of 1974 and in 1979 the UK military base was closed, which shook the economy, and traditional Maltese faith in UK protection.
Domestically, the country was polarised between the generally socialist MLP and the pro-western and economically liberal PN.
Under the long and forceful leadership of Mintoff, the MLP government made Malta a strong adherent of the Non-Aligned Movement and strengthened cultural and trade links with Malta’s North African neighbours, notably oil-rich Libya.
Political conflict was exacerbated by anomalies in the electoral system, which allowed the MLP to retain power after the 1981 parliamentary elections, although the PN had more votes. After strikes and civil unrest, in 1987 Mintoff’s successor Dr Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici reformed the electoral system, and the May 1987 elections were won by the PN, under Dr Edward Fenech-Adami, who reversed many of Mintoff’s centralist policies.
The PN led by Fenech-Adami strengthened its majority at the general election in 1992, securing 34 of 65 seats, and 51.8 per cent of the votes. A third party, the Democratic Alternative, with strong policies on environmental protection, emerged, but the basic two-party pattern remained fairly intact. After this second defeat under the electoral system he had introduced, Bonnici resigned as leader of the MLP and was replaced by Dr Alfred Sant, who pledged to modernise the MLP’s policies.
After the EU Council of Ministers decided in 1995 to accept Malta as a candidate to join the European Union, the PN government set about preparing the country for accession – introducing VAT and removing some import tariffs. However, VAT was unpopular, and the changes as a whole controversial, so the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for 1997, were brought forward to October 1996 to settle the issue of EU membership and its required economic disciplines. The elections resulted in a narrow win for the MLP – 50.7 per cent to the PN’s 47.8 per cent – with a voter turnout of 98 per cent of the registered voters. On taking office as Prime Minister, Sant immediately withdrew Malta’s application to join the EU and pulled out of NATO’s Partnership for Peace plan.
During 1998, the MLP had a majority of one vote in the House of Representatives and on two occasions when former Prime Minister Dom Mintoff had voted with the Nationalist opposition (to defeat a development project affecting his own constituency), it had not been able to command a majority.
The general election scheduled for 2001 was brought forward to September 1998, when the PN, still led by Fenech-Adami, won 35 of the 65 parliamentary seats and 51.8 per cent of the votes, giving the party an endorsement for its planned application for EU membership. The PN government immediately reactivated its application to join the EU and resumed its preparations for accession, and in December 1999 Malta was formally invited to enter into negotiations on accession. Malta became a member of the EU in May 2004.