Malta’s situation in the central Mediterranean has made it an important strategic base since the earliest days of navigation. The first civilization to leave any significant remains flourished in the third millennium BC, building many megalithic temples. Later the island was occupied by the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians and the Romans. Christianity arrived early, in about AD 60, when St Paul was shipwrecked off the coast, and the religion rapidly established itself. On the partition of the Roman Empire, Malta passed under the control of Constantinople. Arab attacks during the eighth and ninth centuries culminated in the surrender of the islands to the governor of Muslim Sicily in 870, but subsequently the Normans reconquered Sicily, and Malta passed back to Christian control in 1090.
The Norman rule of the 12th century witnessed a great expansion of trade and a flowering of the arts and sciences, reflecting the splendors of Sicily itself, but the death of the last Hautville king in 1194 ushered in a period of confusion. Prosperity alternated with internal chaos for the rest of the Middle Ages, as the island repeatedly became caught up in the great dynastic struggles of the Mediterranean. The Hohenstaufer (mainly Frederick II), the Angevins, the Aragonnese, the Venetians, the Genoese, the Papacy, the kings of France and the Arabs – all, at various times, attempted to gain control of Malta. Political stability did not return until the 16th century, when Malta, together with Sicily, became part of the vast empire of Charles V, who in 1530, recognized the strategic value of the islands for Christendom, by granting them to the Knights of St John.
For the next 250 years Malta was a bulwark against Turkish ambitions in Europe, notably in 1565 when, against overwhelming odds, the island was successfully defended. Napoleon briefly held Malta in the last three years of the 18th century, but a British-backed rebellion forced him to retreat and the British ruled for the next 181 years. The most famous episode in Malta’s recent history was the heroic defense of the island during World War II for which the nation was awarded the George Cross. In 1956 a referendum came down heavily in favor of full integration with Britain, a policy then backed by the governing Maltese Labor Party (MLP) under Dom Mintoff. Successive rounds of talks failed, and by 1961 independence was sought by both the major political parties, the other being the conservative Nationalist Party then led by Dr Borg Olivier.
Independence was achieved in 1964, and Dr Borg Olivier became Prime Minister. Mintoff’s MLP won the 1971 elections and began to pursue a policy of neutrality, reaching treaties with Libya, Italy and the then USSR, amongst other states. In 1979 the British military base was closed. In May 1987, 16 years of MLP rule came to an end when the center-right Nationalist party, led by Dr Edward Fenech Adami took power. The Nationalists also won the 1992 general election and, during their decade in power, followed the general European pattern of liberalizing and deregulating the Maltese economy.
By the mid-1990s the overriding political issue in Malta was membership of the European Union. The Nationalists under Fenech-Adami were strongly in favor; the Labor party was an equally vehement opponent. Labor believed that EU agricultural policies would increase the cost of living and undermine Malta’s traditional neutrality. In September 1996, the Fenech-Adami Government, pursuing its mandate of full EU membership, called a general election. This led to an unexpected Labor victory at the polls: party leader Dr Alfred Sant immediately announced that EU membership was no longer on the agenda.
The Sant government planned that Malta’s association agreement with the EU (signed in 1970 as an essential initial step towards full membership) was to be converted into a ‘free trade zone’ between Malta and the EU. Also scrapped was Malta’s participation in the NATO ‘Partnership for Peace’ program, under which non-members of NATO – mostly east European – could align themselves with the organization. In September 1998, however, a split within the MLP forced a snap general election at which the NP was returned to power. Fenech-Adami, now the elder statesman of Maltese politics, announced that EU membership was government policy once again and, within months, Malta’s suspended application was re-submitted. While the accession negotiations proceeded smoothly thereafter, the government faced a more difficult task in persuading the often insular Maltese to overcome their suspicion of ‘control from Brussels’. At a national referendum in March 2003, 5 per cent backed membership. Malta finally joined, along with nine other countries (mostly from eastern and central Europe), in May 2004. Premier Fenech-Adami, despite the debacle of 1996, decided to follow up the referendum with a general election. That time the gamble worked, and the Nationalists were re-elected. It is now hoped that dissent has been assuaged and Malta can prepare for what it's integration with the EU shall entail.
Malta’s head of state is president, a largely ceremonial post. Executive power is held by the Cabinet which is chosen from the unicameral legislature, il Kamra tad Deputati (House of Representatives). The assembly has 65 members elected every five years in multi-seat constituencies.
The agricultural sector is small, with potatoes being the only major export commodity. Although Malta is an island, the fishing industry is also relatively insignificant. With few natural resources, governments have sought to develop the economy through tourism and export-dedicated manufacturing. Tourism now accounts for over a quarter of Malta’s foreign exchange earnings. The industrial sector includes textiles, footwear and clothing (the most important of the new industries), plastics, printing, electronic components and electrical equipment. The old naval dockyards used by the British have now converted to operate as a commercial shipyard. Malta has developed close economic links with Libya, which has invested heavily in property and commerce on the island as well as supplying the bulk of the oil that meets the island’s energy needs. France has become the principal market for exports, followed by the USA, Germany, Singapore, the UK and Italy. The main economic policy issue under debate in Malta is relations with the EU and the country’s application for membership. The conservative Nationalist Party (PN) favors joining while the Maltese Labor Party is strongly opposed to membership. After a sudden withdrawal in 1996 of its original application, the PN administration reapplied in 1998. The PN went on to win the 2003 poll, and Malta's membership was endorsed in March 2003 by popular referendum. Negotiations progressed fairly smoothly and Malta joined the EU, along with nine other countries (mostly from eastern Europe), in May 2004.