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Gavin Matthews

Malta: Europe’s southerly outpost

There is no doubt that one of the greatest challenges Malta has faced in recent years has been coping with the influx of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East.

SOLAS MAGAZINE AUTHOR Gavin Matthews 25 MAY 2017 08:25 h GMT+1
A view of Valetta, in Malta. / Neil Howard (Flickr, CC)

About 190 miles north of Libya is an archipelago of 21 islands. Together, they form the state of Malta. Although lying further south than two African capitals, Malta is a firmly European nation.

In almost every respect, however, Malta is a unique country whose idiosyncrasies flow, not just from its geography but also from its complex and fascinating history.

The Maltese islands have been inhabited continuously since prehistoric times, and are a rich resource for archaeologists seeking evidence of Carthaginian, Roman and Byzantine civilisations. Ancient paganism was thoroughly displaced by Christianity very early in the rise of the new faith in Europe, a transition which began when the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked on the island and preached to the inhabitants. This critical episode in Maltese history is recorded both in the New Testament and in the naming of his supposed landing place as “St Paul’s Island”.

Malta was not a fully independent nation state until 1964, and was dominated in turn by Arab conquest, the Holy Roman Empire, the Sovereign Military Order of St John of Jerusalem (the Sovereign Order of Malta), the French under Napoleon, and finally the British. Each of these external forces has contributed linguistic, religious, and cultural elements evident in contemporary Malta.

After British rule ended in 1964, Malta initially was a close ally of NATO, but became officially ‘non-aligned’ for most of the remainder of the Cold War, finally opting for European Union membership in 2004.



Today, Malta is a democratic republic, with a unicameral legislature elected by proportional representation. The business of government is run by the prime minister, but the ceremonial functions of government are mostly carried out by a president, appointed by parliament in five-yearly terms of office. The 2013 elections returned the Partit Laburista and Dr Joseph Muscat as Prime Minister. In 2013, the parliament unanimously elected Marie Louise Coleiro Preca as President.

Political engagement in Malta is exceptionally high. The 2013 election saw a 93 per cent turnout, which dwarves the 58 per cent achieved in the 2016 US presidential election. It is also considerably higher than the UK’s 66 per cent, and even surpasses Belgium’s high participation rates which almost reach 90 per cent.


Densely populated

Malta is one of the most crowded places in Europe, with exceptionally high population density, surpassed in the EU only by the territory of Gibraltar. This element of the demographic landscape has profound implications for the political and cultural landscape of Malta, especially as its southerly Mediterranean location has made it an obvious destination for North Africans seeking entry to the EU.


Economic growth

Economically, Malta is a highly developed modern economy, which continues to show solid economic growth and endured the post-2008 financial crisis with more resilience and stability than most other EU nations. The Maltese banking and finance sector is especially important to the economy, and required no injections of government money to prevent implosion. The economy shows a highly competitive 3.6 per cent annual growth rate.[1]



There is no doubt that one of the greatest challenges Malta has faced in recent years has been coping with the influx of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East. The comparatively short sea crossing from Tunisia has made the Maltese archipelago a natural destination for those seeking access to the EU. The high volume of migrant flows into Malta has been accompanied by practical, economic and cultural conflicts, as newcomers have sought to establish themselves in this densely populated state amongst a remarkably culturally homogenous indigenous population.[2] Whilst concerted efforts to assist immigrants have been made by NGOs such as the Jesuit Refugee Service, the anti-immigrant sentiments expressed by the majority population in surveys sporadically flares into racially aggravated violence. Racial tensions remain a huge subject of online discussion on Maltese social media.[3]

The Pew Research Centre has identified seven major routes for migrant flows into Europe, which accounted for 1.8 million people in 2015 alone. Within this, the “Central Mediterranean” route from Tunisia and Libya via Malta is decreasing in popularity, dropping to 150,000 immigrants by 2015. In contrast in the Eastern Mediterranean corridor, numbers are measured in millions. Now, however, (according to The Economist)  “the flow to Malta has virtually shut down – and no one knows why”. Some commentators have suggested a secret deal has been struck between Malta and the EU.[4]


Religious affiliation

Roman Catholicism remains a key ingredient in Maltese identity today, which is both enshrined in the nation’s constitution as the official religion taught in schools and professed by over 97 per cent of the population. Islam, the second most practised religion, accounts for the affiliation of only 0.2 per cent of people on the islands. Protestant churches exist, with mainline denominations, as well as Reformed Evangelicals and Pentecostals too. Many of these groups initially served expatriates under British rule, but have not penetrated deeply into Maltese culture whose formal commitment to Catholicism is resolute.[5]

Malta’s Catholicism is perhaps most apparent in its regulation of medical ethics. Malta is the most radically ‘pro-life’ member of the EU, where the practice of abortion is not just a criminal offence, but even discussion of abortion remains a significant taboo. A mother who aborts a baby in Malta can face three years in prison, whilst a medical professional caught facilitating the procedure can be incarcerated for up to four years and have their license to practice medicine revoked.[6]



It would be a mistake, however, to interpret Malta’s pro-life stance as a symptom of a system of Catholic ethics being foisted on a reluctant populace. One recent survey indicated that an overwhelming majority of Maltese favour retention of the existing law.[7] Furthermore, Maltese ethical law is not uniformly in line with Roman Catholic ethical positions, but is selective in its application. Malta has simultaneously the strictest prohibitions against abortion and some of the most liberal laws relating to sexual and gender minorities, from same-sex marriage to transgender, recognition any where in the EU.[8]

Malta, Europe’s southern outpost, remains deeply enigmatic.

Gavin Matthews is a writter, blogger and Bible-teacher.

This article was published with permission of Solas magazine. Solas is published quarterly in the U.K. Click here to learn more or subscribe. 


[2] Interview with Rev Nathan McConnell, undertaking doctoral research on migration in Malta.






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