Five things to know about Malta

Five things to know about Malta, where legislative elections are held on Saturday.

Political unrest

A British colony since 1814, Malta became independent in 1964 and a republic in 1974, while remaining in the Commonwealth.

With Maltese and English as official languages, it joined the European Union in 2004 and the Eurozone in 2008.

Only two parties are represented in the single chamber parliament, the Labor Party and the Nationalist Party, and power is in the hands of the Prime Minister.

The current Labor prime minister, Robert Abela, was elected by his party in January 2020 after his predecessor Joseph Muscat left in a political crisis.

Muscat was accused of obstructing the investigation into the 2017 murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had accused those around her of corruption.

A 2021 public inquiry concluded that the Maltese state “should take responsibility” for his death by creating a “climate of impunity”.

Dynamic economy

Malta’s economy has surpassed that of its eurozone neighbors before the pandemic, driven by tourism, financial services and online gambling.

The outbreak of the coronavirus triggered a massive recession, but it rebounded with growth of over 9% last year. In January, Malta recorded an unemployment rate of 3.1%, the lowest in the euro zone.

Malta also benefits from the offer of European passports in return for investment, although the program was suspended for Russians and Belarusians following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

The so-called golden passport program has raised 1.1 billion euros since 2013, according to government figures.

In 2017, more than a dozen European media organizations in an investigation dubbed the “Malta Files” accused the country of being a “pirate base for tax evasion inside the EU” – allegations which Malta has denied.

Malta was placed last year on a “grey list” of countries subject to heightened scrutiny to combat money laundering and terrorist financing, by the Financial Action Task Force.

Entry point for migrants

The archipelago of three islands – Gozo, Comino and Malta – is home to around 516,000 people living in 316 square kilometers (122 square miles), making it the EU’s smallest and most densely populated country.

South of Sicily and northeast of Tunisia, Malta is a gateway to Europe for migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

NGOs accuse Malta of ignoring distress calls from boats in the Mediterranean. The Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee found during a visit in September 2020 that the treatment of detained migrants in Malta was “bordering on inhumane” due to “institutional negligence”.

Malta argues that it has made significant investments since the report, while noting the challenge it faces, having “the highest share of irregular migrants per capita in the EU”.

Illegal abortion

Malta, where Catholicism is the state religion, is the only EU country that completely bans abortion, punishable by up to three years in prison.

But The Times of Malta reported in 2021 that only three women over the past two decades have been convicted, with none having served time behind bars.

Divorce was legalized after a referendum vote in 2011. In 2017, Malta legalized same-sex marriage and adoption by all couples.

Malta became in December the first country in Europe to legalize cannabis and its cultivation for personal use.

Order of Malta

After founding a hospital in Jerusalem in 1048, the Knights of Malta were recognized as a lay religious order by the Pope, gaining strength under the First Crusade.

In 1530 Emperor Charles V granted Malta to the Order of Malta – which had continued to protect pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land.

After driving the Ottomans out of Malta in 1565, the order became a key naval power, attacking Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean, plundering their ships and capturing slaves.

Napoleon drove the order from the island after its occupation of Malta in 1798.

Today, the order – still a sovereign entity maintaining diplomatic relations with other states – is based in Rome and carries out humanitarian actions around the world with the help of volunteers.

© Agence France-Presse

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