The EU referendum in Malta: slogans lose to negotiation results 1

The EU supporters won out because they had a package to sell - the results of Malta’s EU negotiations - while the opposition only used slogans promoting a concept without any content. However, next month’s general elections will be Malta’s second EU referendum.

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Malta was the first candidate country to submit to a referendum on EU accession and, in what could be described as a positive example for other accession states, the vote held on Saturday yielded a 53.6% ‘Yes’.

The majority of the electorate participated in the referendum, with 91% of eligible voters casting their ballot. Despite the high turnout, this still represents a decrease of about 4% over the traditional turnout at a general election. Politics and voting are taken very seriously on the island and tensions ran high at the vote-counting hall, with representatives of the two major political parties represented in Parliament scrutinising every vote. This is understandable given that Malta – which inherited a two-party system from its past as a British colony – has a little over 290 thousand voters, which means that the outcome of general elections often depends on several thousand votes.

This Mediterranean island was considered one of the most EU-sceptical countries as the opposition Labour Party, which commands almost 50 per cent of the electorate, is against membership. Thus the pre-referendum campaigns of both parties – the ruling pro-EU Nationalist Party and the Labour Party that was campaigning for a special partnership with the EU – were very loud, involving countless mass meetings and a large media campaign.

In reviewing the outcome, it seems that the arguments of the Nationalist Party won out because the party had a package to sell - the results of Malta’s EU negotiations - while the opposition only used slogans promoting a concept without any content. The Labour Party also misinformed their voters, alleging, for example, that abortions would be legalized if Malta joined the EU. In reality abortions, a significant topic in this strictly Catholic country, are subject to national legislation and will remain banned in Malta. The opposition also scared the Maltese by claiming that foreigners would take over their jobs, even though the Maltese government has negotiated a 7-year transition period allowing Malta to limit the flow of EU workers to the Mediterranean island. Finally, the Labour Party urged their supporters to either abstain from voting, invalidate the ballot or vote ‘No’. The opposition stressed that each person should only consider only their personal benefits, forgetting about the community and the country. This was judged to be short-sighted by both the Nationalist Party and analysts.

The ‘Yes’ campaign, in the mean time, focused on the economic benefits of EU membership, as Malta stands to receive approximately 160 million euros if it joined the EU. The Maltese are also hoping the EU will bring more foreign investment and higher environmental standards to the country as environmental issues have been left out of the agenda for many years. But the main argument for many voters was the calculation that EU membership would bring not just financial gains (with EU being Malta’s main trading partner), but also a voice in the international arena. According to many, it does not make sense to remain outside of the EU that will continue to develop with or without Malta.

Yet, the period of political tension is not over for Malta. Referenda are not binding by Maltese law and yesterday Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami called for general elections on April 12. With elections normally won by an absolute majority of just 51%, the party in government is hoping that it can repeat the positive result obtained in the referendum.

However, analysts fear that the third political party in the country, the pro-EU Alternattiva Demokratika (The Green Party) which commands around two per cent of the electorate and is not represented in parliament, could win the votes of some Nationalist Party supporters and, as a result, the Labour Party could take over. In that case, Malta’s integration into the EU would be endangered as the Labour Party already blocked the country’s bid to enter the EU once before (when it was in power in 1996). Therefore next month’s general elections will be Malta’s second EU referendum.

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