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Malta

{mawl′-tuh}

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Malta is a country comprising a group of islands lying 93 km (58 mi) south of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea between Italy and North Africa. The islands are Malta (the largest), Gozo, Comino, and the uninhabited rocks of Comminotto and Filfla. Historically, Malta's location has been of great strategic importance in the Mediterranean. Valletta, the capital, located on the island of Malta, possesses one of the finest harbors in southern Europe. Because of these factors, Malta has been subject to numerous invasions and foreign domination, which has left a legacy of foreign influences. Most recently, Malta was a British colony until 1964, when it became independent.

Land and People

The islands are mostly composed of low-lying limestone hills. Dingli Cliffs, the highest point, rises to 253 m (830 ft). Because there are no rivers, the vegetation, which includes species indigenous to both Italy and North Africa, is sparse in some areas. Malta has a Mediterranean climate. Summers are warm, with an average temperature of 25° C (77° F) in July; winters are mild, with an average temperature of 13° C (56° F) in January. Rainfall averages about 510 mm (20 in) annually, with about three-quarters falling during the winter. The islands are often exposed to violent winds.

Malta's population has been increasing rapidly, giving it one of the highest population densities in the world. The population is ethnically mixed, absorbing Arabs, Italians, and British. The chief spoken language, Maltese, is the only Semitic language in the world normally using the Latin alphabet. Almost the entire population is Roman Catholic, the official religion. Education is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 16. The University of Malta (1592) is at Msida.

Economic Activity

Malta's economy was long dependent on income from British military installations on the island. By 1979, however, all British forces had withdrawn and Malta faced severe unemployment and the need to diversify its economic base. Malta's modern economy is based on tourism and exports of manufactures, mainly electronic goods and pharmaceuticals; tourism accounts for roughly 30% of the gross domestic product. The service sector, which includes financial services, is very important. Shipping and shipbuilding have expanded. A new harbor at Marsaxlokk Bay, called Malta Freeport, was established in 1988. Specializing in containers and industrial storage, it is a major transshipment port for the Mediterranean. Agriculture employs less than 2% of the working population. Holdings are small, and most farmers are elderly. The main crops are fodder crops, potatoes, and onions. Malta must import about 80% of its food.

Malta was accepted as a member of the European Union (EU) and officially joined the EU on May 1, 2004. In preparation, the government stepped up the pace of privatizing the economy and liberalizing markets. Malta adopted the euro as its currency on Jan. 1, 2008.

History and Government

Malta is notable for its prehistoric monuments, including the temple complexes of Tarxien and Ggantija and the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum (a burial ground), which show that a high level of civilization had been reached there by the Copper Age. The islands were subsequently occupied by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians. With the defeat of Carthage in 218 B.C. they became part of the Roman Empire. According to Acts 28, Saint Paul was shipwrecked on Malta and planted the Christian faith there. In 870 the Arabs took the islands and introduced Arabic. In 1090, Malta was conquered by the Normans, and in 1530 it was acquired by the Knights of St. John (see Hospitalers). The knights transformed the islands by building extensively, and in 1565 an Ottoman attack was successfully resisted. The knights continued to rule Malta until 1798, when it was taken by Napoléon Bonaparte (see Napoleon I). The British in turn captured it in 1800, and it became the headquarters of Britain's Mediterranean fleet. During World War II, Malta was subjected to heavy bombing by German and Italian forces, and in 1942, King George VI awarded it the George Cross for valor. Malta became self-governing in 1947. This self-government was revoked in 1959 but was restored in 1962. Full independence was achieved in 1964, and Malta became a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.

As specified by the 1974 constitution, Malta is a parliamentary republic with a president, a prime minister, and a unicameral legislature. The presidency is a largely ceremonial office; the government is headed by the prime minister, who is the head of the majority party in the house. From 1971 to 1987 the Labour party was in power under Dominic Mintoff and Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici. A Nationalist government headed by Eddie Fenech Adami (1987–96) sought membership in the EU. The Labourites under Alfred Sant returned to office in October 1996 and suspended the EU application. Two years later, however, the electorate restored the Nationalists and Adami to power, and the effort to join the EU was resumed and approved by the electorate in March 2003. The government called general elections in April in the hope of adding strength to that endorsement; in that polling the ruling party won a majority of the popular vote but not the huge victory it had hoped for.

Adami resigned as prime minister in April 2004. He was succeeded by Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, who was selected by Nationalist party leaders over Finance Minister John Dalli. In the general elections of March 2008, Gonzi and the Nationalists were returned to power by a narrow margin.

Since joining the EU, Malta has become a magnet for North Africans seeking asylum in Europe. Under Maltese law, however, such migrants were long considered prohibited immigrants; as such, they faced detention of up to 18 months. This harsh policy incurred criticism from the EU and was finally modified in 2016. The situation had become more acute beginning in early 2011 as uprisings in North Africa generated an even larger influx. In 2013 refugees from the Syrian civil war augmented the flow. As the volume of refugees and other migrants entering Europe surged in 2015, the numbers going to Malta fell off. Those crossing the Mediterranean by boat went mostly to Italy. Nevertheless, Malta fiercely criticized the EU for its "inadequate" response to the chaotic conditions created by mass migration. Holding the rotating 6-month presidency of the EU for the first half of 2017, it called for new ways to send migrants and refugees back.

In January 2013 the Maltese parliament was dissolved following the defeat of the Gonzi government in a key vote. Elections took place on Mar. 9, 2013. They were won by the Labour party, which returned to power for the first time in 15 years. Joseph Muscat became prime minister. In 2016 the government was dogged by corruption allegations. Several of Muscat's associates were said to hold hidden offshore financial accounts, as revealed in the document leak known as the Panama Papers. In April 2017 the same allegation was made against Muscat's wife. The opposition called for his resignation. Instead he called snap elections for June 8, 2017.

Norman J. G. Pounds
Further Reading:

Balm, Roger, Malta (1996).

Berg, Warren, Historical Dictionary of Malta (1995).

Blasi, Abigail, Malta and Gozo, 5th ed. (2013).

Blouet, Brian W., The Story of Malta, rev. ed. (1972).

Elliott, Peter, The Cross and the Ensign: A Naval History of Malta (1980).

Gregory, Desmond, Malta, Britain, and the European Powers, 1793–1815 (1995).

Jellison, Charles, Besieged: The World War II Ordeal of Malta (1985).

Lewis, Harrison, Ancient Malta and Its Antiquities (1977).

Mitchell, Jon P., Ambivalent Europeans: Ritual, Memory and the Public Sphere in Malta (2001).

O'Hara, Vincent P., In Passage Perilous: Malta and the Convoy Battles of June 1942 (2012).

Rix, Juliet, Malta and Gozo (2010).

Trump, David H., Malta: An Archaeological Guide (2000).

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