Mixed fortunes – Malta and the EU

Herman Grech

Not all the effects of EU membership have been welcomed, but Maltese citizens have been especially pleased by their new ability to travel, study and work abroad without restrictions

It is an open secret that many Maltese who voted in favour of European Union membership in a referendum in 2003 subconsciously did so to underline the tiny island’s European identity. The island’s small size, its geographical proximity to North Africa and its Semitic language have imbued the islanders with an odd sense of inferiority for decades. So once the country joined the EU, the Maltese were determined to prove they belonged – and could punch above their weight.

Socialists in the Labour Party had fiercely opposed EU membership, arguing, among other things, that Sicilians would take Maltese jobs. But instead of Sicilians, it was poor African immigrants on board rickety boats that started pouring onto Malta’s shores. Nobody really knows whether the influx of illegal immigration from Africa was directly connected to Malta’s EU membership, but the locals could not be blamed for questioning which Union their country had joined.

While the Maltese government has been busy for six years calling on its EU partners to put its concept of solidarity into practice and help with the problem of African immigration, many young professionals have wasted no time in exploiting the EU’s freedom of movement. Travel has never been easier since Malta joined the passport-less Schengen area. Armed with English as a second language and as graduates from a traditionally excellent education system, many Maltese youngsters suddenly saw countless opportunities as Europe’s doors opened. Many have already settled abroad, and others see migration as a potential prospect – a recent EU-wide survey showed that one out of every five Maltese respondents planned to work abroad in the coming years. And those professionals who decided to stay in Malta have not suffered – they are able to tap EU funds, helping them start up businesses and infiltrate European markets.

Though recent polls show that most of the island’s 400,000 inhabitants now favour EU membership, it has been a bag of mixed fortunes. Levies on imported products went but so did government subsidies on basic services. For every bottle of cheaper wine, the Maltese had to dig deeper to pay for basic utilities such as water and electricity. Surveys have shown that working class respondents are the least likely to have seen any improvements due to membership. Trade unions lament that joining the EU has resulted in inflated prices while wages remain low. And local producers who refused to diversify fell by the wayside, as consumers opted for cheaper foreign products. Farmers and furniture makers are among those who claim EU membership has been squeezing them out of business.

Not everything has changed. Malta still prides itself in providing free health and education services. University students are even paid a contentious stipend, which the government believes is essential to guaranteeing a professional workforce for the future. An administrative mistake that briefly led to the suspension of EU funds for students early in 2010 only served to highlight the extent to which the youngsters were capitalising on the opportunities.

Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi says the timely introduction of the euro in January 2008 helped cushion Malta against the global financial crisis. And he has the figures to prove it – unemployment remains the third lowest in the bloc, foreign investment is up and Malta is one of just two EU countries to have lowered its deficit in 2010. Maltese can now speed along smooth new roads past the blue signs saying “This project was co-financed by the EU” – a welcome alternative to the potholes of the past, the butt of many jokes among the circa 1.2 million tourists who visit Malta annually.

EU membership has arguably done more for the Maltese environment in six years than the previous decades of government inertia ever managed. A large toxic landfill site has been shut down and the government has embarked on a recycling awareness campaign to try to change the habits of citizens renowned for their Mediterranean ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude. And the country’s notorious bird hunters were left seething after the European Commission forced the termination of a contentious hunting season in spring, leaving nature-lovers to applaud a decision no Maltese government dared to take.

But EU membership has also served to expose the way Malta is trailing the rest of Europe in issues like minority rights and the gender gap. Whenever Maltese citizens see their country marked low against their European counterparts in such studies and surveys, they at least now have licence to call on the government to abide by its mantra that tiny Malta can punch beyond its weight.

About the author:

Herman Grech is Deputy Editor of The Sunday Times of Malta.


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