The crossroads of Mediterranean Europe, a brief history
Even though the chalky and not very fertile soil must have seemed inhospitable to the passing sailor, the geographical location of Malta, about 30 kilometres from the south of Sicily and 350 kilometres from coasts of Tunisia and Libya, made it the natural crossroads of the Mediterranean Sea. He who wished to control Europe had to control Malta. During the Neolithic period, people settled on the islands and a new culture began to emerge. It is still possible to see numerous sites from that period – some are among the best preserved in Europe. Later the archipelago was controlled by a long succession of different foreign rulers. Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, and Sicilians, each ruler bringing a specific religion, architecture and culture to the islands. Malta, constant object of war, became the cultural and military beacon of each of the conquering empires. Today the contrasts left by these civilizations at the height of their power are still striking. In a country as small as Malta, a Roman temple can be found right next to an Arab town.
- An archipelago at the heart of the Mediterranean Sea
History and religion
In 60 AD Saint Paul was shipwrecked on the island, bringing Christianity to Malta. The religion was weakened by the subsequent occupations of foreign rulers, but during the 16th century Christianity became predominant once more, particularly with the appearance of the Knights Hospitaller. In 1530 Charles V – Holy Roman Emperor, king of Spain, and ruler of Naples and Sicily – gave Malta to the Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem for the purpose of securing the Mediterranean Sea. The order became the Knights of Malta, leaving an indelible mark on the islands. In 1566, under the reign of Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette, the capital of the archipelago was founded (named Valetta after the Grand Master). The reign of the Knights of Malta ended in 1798, but the order left magnificent buildings, which today are considered the pride of the capital.
Like other conquerors, Napoleon took possession of Malta on his way to Africa. Two years later the Maltese, incensed by the Napoleonic reforms (financial, administrative, and religious), rebelled against the French with the aid of Great Britain. Afterwards, however, Great Britain refused to give the archipelago back to the Maltese, and Malta officially became a part of the British Empire in 1814. Once more the Maltese had to accept the domination of a foreign power. Dissatisfaction grew, nationalistic demands increased, and some concessions were extracted from the British, such as the formal acknowledgement of the native language, Maltese.
At last, in 1964, Malta attained independence. The country remained a member of the Commonwealth (which is still the case today) and became a republic ten years later in 1974.
A Difficult foreign policy
- A place of power in a beautiful setting
When it comes to foreign policy, Malta is, despite its 7000 years of history, very young. Her location between Europe and Africa is both precarious and strategically valuable. From the 1970s Malta has maintained close relations to countries south of the Mediterranean Sea, especially Libya. These relations would cool as Malta formed stronger connections to the European Union. At the same time, Malta chose to remain officially neutral. This policy of neutrality, adopted in 1981, was part of the constitution of 1987. The archipelago officially applied for membership in the European Union in 1990. However, the question of the EU was still not settled and the Labour Party withdrew Malta’s candidature in 1996. But the idea had gained ground and the great political forces were in favour of the European Union. Consequently, Malta became a member in 2004 and is open to a more comprehensive consolidation of the Union, particularly on the topic of immigration. Malta is subject to extensive, not always legal, immigration as a consequence of her geographical location, her status as a doorway to Europe. But with 1200 inhabitants per km2, the archipelago can not bear a great increase in population.
This small Mediterranean state has no intention of abandoning its central role between Europe and North Africa. Malta is dedicated to the implementation of a Mediterranean policy and participated in the Barcelona process and the 5 + 5 dialogue. The country has also hosted conferences for the Euro-Arab Universities.
The Barcelona process and the 5 + 5 dialogue
The Barcelona process was set up between the European Union and different Mediterranean countries in order to develop closer relations between neighbouring countries. It has two main objectives : peace through dialogue and commercial and financial development through the implementation of a free-exchange zone. The participants are : the 25 member states of the EU, the European Commission, Algeria, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey. At the moment, Libya only has observer status. Within the framework of the Barcelona process, informal political instruments, like the Mediterranean Forum, are created.
The 5+5 dialogue is the result of an idea formulated in 1980. Initially, it included the northern countries (Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy) and the five southern countries (Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya). Malta became the tenth member in 1991. After a chaotic start, regular meetings between foreign ministers have taken place since 2001. Since 2003 the European Commission has participated.
A service oriented economy
- The island of Gozo, popular weekend destination for the Maltese and central to Malta’s agriculture (olives, capers, and goat cheese)
This rocky archipelago, which can boast of a position in the top ten of the smallest countries in the world, is hardly a cornucopia of natural resources. Unfertile farmland, no fresh water sources, or subterranean riches. Dependent on food supplies and manufactured products from its main trading partners and weakened by the slightest geopolitical tremor, Malta is in an essentially delicate position. But Malta knows how to use her assets. → like Ireland, 100 % of the population speak English and have a good basic education. → like France, Malta is a natural geographical junction, receiving 15 % of the traffic in the Mediterranean Sea. → like all South European countries, Malta has mass tourism potential. Admittedly, there’s a limit when it comes to large sand beaches, but with a unique cultural and historical heritage Malta has much more to offer.
The archipelago of Malta (316 km2) is situated 93 km to the south of Sicily, 288 km east of Tunisia, and 340 km north of Libya. It has a central position in the Mediterranean, almost halfway between Gibraltar (1826 km) and Alexandria (1510 km). Malta shares maritime borders with Italy, Tunisia, Libya, Greece, and Albania. The archipelago consists of two principal islands, Malta (360.000 hectares, 246 km2, with the capital Valetta and most of the country’s important cities) and Gozo (32.000 hectares, 67 km2), and four smaller islands, of which only Comino is inhabited. The distance from the south east corner to the north west corner of the main island is 27 km – and 14 km from the east side to the west. The ground is chalky and the vegetation is typically Mediterranean with few trees and terrace cultivation. With 400.000 inhabitants on such a small area of land (1200 inhabitants/km2), Malta would have had the highest population density if it hadn’t been for Monaco, Singapore, or the Vatican.
Consequently Malta has developed a niche economy within chosen sectors. The industrial sector (22 % of the GDP) is based on a solid network of family-owned small and medium-sized enterprises. ST Microelectronics is responsible for more than half of the country’s total exports (which poses a problem when it comes to Malta’s dependence on the results of the French-Italian company)
- Public services
A highly developed transport system. In these Maltese buses it is not unusual to find images saints and the Virgin Mary
Malta’s true wealth lies in its service sector (75 % of the GDP), developed since the independence. With one million visitors per year, tourism alone represents 35 % of the GDP and allows many Maltese to hold two to three different jobs at a time. But having banked on mass tourism and having endured the economic strain after 9-11, the Maltese government has chosen to rely on a more exclusive kind of tourism (water sports, thalossotherapy, balneotherapy)
Malta has boosted a special segment in the service sector, boat owners. With 1500 boats under Maltese flag, one of the smallest countries in the world has Europe’s largest merchant fleet ! The newest niche market is that of English language classes aimed at young people and professionals.
This good economic health (giving Malta a standard of living superior to that of Portugal) has resulted in Malta joining the Euro-currency. Like Italy and Greece in the 90s, strict economic policies, structural reforms, and budgetary consolidation have been implemented in order to ensure membership to the Eurozone.
One nation, two languages, three islands, one multicultural identity
Since the beginning of its history, Malta has been at the crossroads of great civilizations, at the heart of their development in the Mediterranean. This particular aspect of Maltese culture is still striking today, e.g. town names can be Roman (Victoria, Floriana, Pietà), Arab (Rabat, Mdina, Sliema, Mosta, Zejtun), or simply Maltese (Marsaxlokk, Zebbug).
Well-preserved historic buildings bear the signs of a long line of different rulers (Roman, Carthaginian, Turkish, French, and English). So it not surprising that Malta is as much a little Sicily (Mediterranean cuisine, population 96 % Catholic) as it is an example of British culture (political system, ban on smoking in public places, driving on the left side of the road) and – considering the Maltese’s passion for Premier League football and their support for England during the world cup – a worthy representative of the Commonwealth.