Area: 316 sq. km. (122 sq. mi.); about one-tenth the size of Rhode Island.
Major cities: Valletta (capital), Sliema.
Terrain: Several islands (of which Malta is the largest) with low hills.
Climate: Subtropical summer; other seasons temperate. Mediterranean: hot dry summers, cool wet winters.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Maltese.
Population (2003 est.): 400,420.
Annual growth rate (2003 est.): 0.73%
Ethnic divisions: Mixture of Arab, Sicilian, Norman, Spanish, Italian, English.
Religion (2003): Roman Catholic, 98%.
Languages: Maltese, English.
Education (2003): Years compulsory--until age 16. Attendance--96%. Literacy--93%.
Health (2003): Infant mortality rate (per 1,000 live births)--5.6. Life expectancy at birth--78 years.
Labor force (2003): 160,000. Public sector 25.5%; Services 42.4%; Manufacturing 23.1%; Construction & Quarrying 6.9%; Agriculture and fisheries 2.1%.
Independence: September 1964.
Constitution: 1964; revised 1974; revised 1987.
Branches: Executive--president (chief of state), prime minister (head of government), cabinet. Legislative--unicameral House of Representatives. Judicial--Constitutional Court.
Administrative subdivisions: 13 electoral districts.
Political parties: Nationalist Party, Malta Labor Party, Alternativa Demokratika (Green Party).
Suffrage: Universal at 18.
GDP (2002 est.): $3.85 billion.
Annual growth rate (2002): 2.2 %.
Per capita income: $10,434.
National resources: Limestone, salt.
GDP composition by sector (2001): Services (71.7% of GDP). Industry (25.5% of GDP); Types--clothing, semiconductors, shipbuilding and repair, furniture, leather, rubber and plastic products, footwear, spectacle frames, toys, jewelry, food, beverages, tobacco products. Agriculture (2.8% GDP); Products--fodder crops, potatoes, onions, Mediterranean fruits and vegetables.
Trade (f.o.b. 2002): Exports--$2.1 billion: machinery and transport equipment, semi-conductors, clothing, furniture, leather, rubber and plastic products, footwear, bunker fuel. Major markets--U.S., Germany, France, U.K., Italy. Imports--$2.7 billion: finished and semi-finished goods, food and beverages, industrial supplies, petroleum and related products. Major suppliers--Italy, France, U.S., U.K., Germany.
Trade balance (2002): -$650 million.
Budget (2002): Revenues $1.18 billion; expenditures $1.82 billion, including capital expenditures of $224.3 million.
Official exchange rate (2002 av.): One Maltese lira (LM)=US$0.4336 (currency fluctuates).
Malta is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with about 1,160 inhabitants per square kilometer (3,000 per sq. mi.). This compares with about 21 per square kilometer (55 per sq. mi.) for the United States. Inhabited since prehistoric times, Malta was first colonized by the Phoenicians. Subsequently, Arabs, Italians, and the British have influenced Maltese life and culture to varying degrees. Most of the foreign community in Malta, predominantly active or retired British nationals and their dependents, centers around Sliema and surrounding modern suburbs. There is also a growing North African Muslim community of about 2,250 (2001) married to Maltese nationals. Roman Catholicism is established by law as the religion of Malta; however, full liberty of conscience and freedom of worship is guaranteed, and a number of faiths have places of worship on the island. Malta has two official languages--Maltese (a Semitic language) and English. The literacy rate has reached 93%, compared to 63% in 1946. Schooling is compulsory until age 16.
Malta was an important cultic center for earth-mother worship in the 4th millennium B.C. Recent archeological work shows a developed religious center there long before those of Sumer and Egypt. Malta's written history began well before the Christian era. Originally the Phoenicians, and later the Carthaginians, established ports and trading settlements on the island. During the second Punic War (218 B.C.), Malta became part of the Roman Empire. During Roman rule, in A.D. 60, Saint Paul was shipwrecked on Malta at a place now called St. Paul's Bay.
In 533 A.D. Malta became part of the Byzantine Empire and in 870 came under Arab control. Arab occupation and rule left a strong imprint on Maltese life, customs, and language. The Arabs were driven out in 1090 by a band of Norman adventurers under Count Roger of Normandy, who had established a kingdom in southern Italy and Sicily. Malta thus became an appendage of Sicily for 440 years. During this period, Malta was sold and resold to various feudal lords and barons and was dominated successively by the rulers of Swabia, Aquitaine, Aragon, Castile, and Spain.
In 1522 Suleiman II drove the Knights out of Rhodes. They dispersed to their commanderies in Europe and after repeated requests for territory to Charles V, in 1530 the Knights were given sovereignty of Malta under the suzerainty of the Kings of Sicily. In 1523, a key date in Maltese history, the islands were ceded by Charles V of Spain to the Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. For the next 275 years, these famous "Knights of Malta" made the island their domain. They built towns, palaces, churches, gardens, and fortifications and embellished the island with numerous works of art and enhanced cultural heritage. In 1565 Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to Malta. After several months the strength of the Knights and the Maltese population prevailed and the Turks were defeated. Over the years, the power of the Knights declined, however, and their rule of Malta ended with their peaceful surrender to Napoleon in 1798.
The people of Malta rose against French rule, which lasted two years, and with the help of the British evicted them in 1800. In 1814, Malta voluntarily became part of the British Empire. Under the United Kingdom, the island became a military and naval fortress, the headquarters of the British Mediterranean fleet. During World War II, Malta survived relentless raids from German and Italian military forces (1940-43). In recognition, King George VI in 1942 awarded the George Cross "to the island fortress of Malta--its people and defenders." President Franklin Roosevelt, describing the wartime period, called Malta "one tiny bright flame in the darkness." Malta obtained independence on September 21, 1964.
Under its 1964 constitution, Malta became a parliamentary democracy within the Commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth II was sovereign of Malta, and a governor general exercised executive authority on her behalf, while the actual direction and control of the government and the nation's affairs were in the hands of the cabinet under the leadership of a Maltese prime minister.
On December 13, 1974, the constitution was revised, and Malta became a republic within the Commonwealth, with executive authority vested in a Maltese president. The president appoints as prime minister the leader of the party with a majority of seats in the unicameral House of Representatives.
The president also nominally appoints, upon recommendation of the prime minister, the individual ministers to head each of the government departments. The cabinet is selected from among the members of the House of Representatives, which consists of between 65 and 69 members elected on the basis of proportional representation. Elections must be held at least every 5 years. Candidates for any vacancies are determined by the majority of votes obtained by a candidate during the previous elections.
Malta's judiciary is independent. The chief justice and 16 judges are appointed by the president on the advice of the prime minister. Their mandatory retirement age is 65. There is a civil court, a commercial court, and a criminal court. In the latter, the presiding judge sits with a jury of 9. The court of appeal hears appeals from decisions of the civil court and of the commercial court. The court of criminal appeal hears appeals from judgments of conviction by the criminal court. The highest court, the Constitutional Court, hears appeals in cases involving violations of human rights, interpretation of the constitution, and invalidity of laws. It also has jurisdiction in cases concerning disputed parliamentary elections and electoral corrupt practices. There also are inferior courts presided over by a magistrate.
The Local Councils Act, 1993 (Act XV of 1993) was published on June 30, 1993 subdividing Malta into 54 local councils in Malta and 14 in the small island of Gozo. Councils are elected every 3 years by inhabitants who are registered as voters in the Electoral Register. Elections are held by means of the system of proportional representation using the single transferable vote. The mayor is the head of the Local Council and the representative of the Council for all effects under the act. The executive secretary, who is appointed by the Council, is the executive, administrative, and financial head of the Council. All decisions are taken collectively with the other members of the Council. Local Councils are responsible for the general upkeep and embellishment of the locality, local wardens, and refuse collection; they carry out general administrative duties for the central government, such as collection of government rents and funds, and answering government-related public inquiries.
Principal Government Officials
President--Eddie Fenech Adami
Prime Minister—Lawrence Gonzi
Minister of Foreign Affairs—John Dalli
Ambassador to the United States--John Lowell
Ambassador to the United Nations—Walter Balzan
Malta maintains an embassy in the United States at 2017 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-462-3611).
Two parties dominate Malta's polarized and evenly divided politics--the Nationalist Party, led by Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, and the Malta Labor Party, led by Alfred Sant. Elections invariably generate a widespread voter turnout exceeding 96%. The margin between the two parties is so narrow that a 52% share of the votes can still be considered a "landslide" for the winning party. Prior to the May 1987 election, the Maltese constitution was amended to ensure that the party that obtained more than 50% of the popular vote would have a majority of seats in parliament and would thereby form the government. The then-Labor Party government proposed this constitutional amendment in exchange for Nationalist Party (in opposition at the time) agreement to two other amendments to the constitution: The first stipulates Malta's neutrality status and policy of nonalignment, and the second prohibits foreign interference in Malta's elections.
The 1996 elections resulted in the election of the Labor Party by 8,000 votes to replace the Nationalists, who had won in 1987 and 1992. Voter turnout was characteristically high at 96% with the Labor Party receiving 50.72%, the Nationalist party 47.8%, the Alternativa Demokratika (associated with the Greens) 1.46%, and independent parties 0.02%. In 1998 the Labor Party lost a parliamentary vote, leading the Prime Minister to call early elections. The Nationalist Party was returned to office in September 1998 by a majority of 13,000 votes and holds a 5-seat majority in parliament. Voter turnout was 95%. The Nationalist Party won 51.81%, the Labor Party won 46.97%, Alternativa Demokratika 1.21%, and independent parties 0.01%.
A referendum held on March 8, 2003 resulted in a 54% majority vote in favor of membership in the European Union (EU) with 91% voter turnout. The opposition Labor Party, strongly opposed to EU membership and having conducted a very strong "No" campaign, refused to recognize the result of the referendum. The Prime Minister called an early election on April 12, 2003 for a definite mandate from the electorate. The Nationalists returned to power with 51.79% and 35 seats, and EU membership was confirmed. The Labor Party earned 47.51% and 30 seats, Alternativa Demokratika had 0.68%, and independent candidates were negligible. Voter turnout was 97%. Malta officially acceded to the European Union on May 1, 2004.
On February 10, 2004, the long-time leader of the Nationalist Party, Eddie Fenech Adami, announced his intention to retire and resigned as leader of the party. Following his election as Nationalist Party leader, Lawrence Gonzi officially became the Prime Minister of Malta on March 22, 2004.
The next elections must occur before April 2008.
Possessing few indigenous raw materials and a very small domestic market, Malta has based its economic development on the promotion of tourism, accounting for roughly 30% of gross domestic product (GDP), and exports of manufactured goods, mainly semi-conductors, which account for some 75% of total Maltese exports. Since the beginning of the 1990s, expansion in these activities has been the principal engine for strong growth in the Maltese economy.
Tourist arrivals and foreign exchange earnings derived from tourism have steadily increased since the late 1970s. Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., the tourist industry has suffered some setbacks worldwide. Maltese tourist arrivals fell by a cumulative 7% during 2001 and 2002. At the same time, the bursting of the high tech bubble dampened exports and private investments.
Despite these adverse developments, the relatively flexible labor markets kept unemployment fairly steady at 5%-5.25%. Following a decline in GDP in 2001, a modest recovery began in 2002, with some improvements in the tourist sector in the second half of the year. Employment growth, however, remained weak.
The recent low economic growth coupled with corporate bond preference by the private sector has contributed to a weak demand for bank loans. Combined with the strong growth in deposits in the past couple of years, this has led to a rapid buildup of liquidity in the banking system and pressures to reduce interest rates that are now fully liberalized. The banking system remains highly concentrated with two of the four local banks accounting for about 90% of total loans and deposits.
The Maltese Government has pursued a policy of gradual economic liberalization, taking some steps to shift the emphasis in trade and financial policies from reliance on direct government intervention and control to policy regimes that allow a greater role for market mechanisms. Malta's accession into the EU will mark the total dismantling of protective import levies on industrial products, increasing the outward orientation of the economy. Malta maintains a long-standing exchange rate peg to a basket of currencies-currently composed of the euro, pound sterling, and dollar. The peg has delivered low inflation and served Malta well, especially during the period of liberalization.
The fiscal situation remains difficult despite some progress in consolidating public finances. The budget deficit was brought down from 10.7% of GDP in 1998 to 6.5% of GDP in 2002 (still high by EU standards), mainly through increases in tax rates and improved collection of taxes due. Current expenditures were reduced in the late 1990s but have crawled back up. The public sector wage bill and subsidies to public enterprises were mainly responsible for this increase. Substantial privatization proceeds have limited the increase in public debt, which grew from 24% of GDP in 1990 to almost 64% in 2002.
The Maltese Government is expected to shortly announce reforms to the pension and welfare system and reduce the public sector involvement in the economy as part of the medium-term fiscal consolidation plan. According to the Maltese Government plans, the fiscal deficit is expected to go down to 3.5% of GDP by the end of 2005. Although final figures are not yet available, economic growth is expected to be around 3% for 2003. A slightly stronger recovery is expected for 2004.
For the first several years of independence, Malta followed a policy of close cooperation with the United Kingdom and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries. This relationship changed with the election of the Mintoff Labor Party government in June 1971. The NATO sub-headquarters in Malta was closed at the request of the Labor Party government and the U.S. 6th Fleet discontinued recreational visits to the country. After substantially increased financial contributions from several NATO countries (including the United States), British forces remained in Malta until 1979. Following their departure, the Labor government charted a new course of neutrality and became an active member of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Malta is an active participant in the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Non-Aligned Movement, and various other international organizations. In these fora, Malta has frequently expressed its concern for the peace and economic development of the Mediterranean region. The Nationalist Party government is continuing a policy of neutrality and nonalignment, but in a Western context. The government desires close relations with the United States and Western Europe, with an emphasis on increased trade and private investment. In 1992, U.S. Navy ships started paying liberty calls again, and currently do so a regular basis.
In May 2004, Malta became a member of the European Union.
Malta and the United States established full diplomatic relations upon Malta's independence in 1964; overall relations are currently active and cordial. The United States has been sympathetic to Malta's campaign to attract private investment, and some firms operating in Malta have U.S. ownership or investment. These include major hotels and manufacturing and repair facilities, and some offices servicing local and regional operations.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Anthony H. Gioia
Deputy Chief of Mission--Thomas M. Murphy
For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.