Malta: A Small Country with a Big Influence

On the 14th April, the Maltese High Commissioner Norman Hamilton gave a talk at the National Liberal Club in London entitled “Malta: A Small Country with a Big Influence on the World Stage”. There is an amused reserve to this proclamation, and he admits to having hesitated at the choice of words. Malta, for those who can place it on a world map, is likely to conjure up holiday memories of intense Mediterranean sunshine, absurdly blue seas and dreamlike baroque architecture.

Fond memories indeed, but not ones that indicate a notable place at the diplomatic top table. What is an influencer, if not something that punches around its own weight? Hamilton refutes this by quoting the philosopher Albert Schweizer: “Example is not the main thing in influencing others; it is the only thing.” One thing is certain: any example you draw from Malta adds to the impression that this is an out-of-the-ordinary country.

Malta is at once the EU’s smallest, least populous, and most densely populated state. Against those unusual dimensions a quite extraordinary historical tapestry unfolds; the islands have been inhabited since at least 5200BC and have been under the rule of a succession of powers, including the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Moors, the Normans, the Sicilians, the Spanish, the Order of St John, the French, and finally the British before national independence was gained in 1964. These recurrent upheavals were no chance event. Malta’s position in the middle of the Mediterranean is of unrivalled strategic importance and has offered a bridge between Europe, Africa and the Middle East for the comings and goings of different peoples throughout history.

It’s a position that has profoundly shaped the country’s identity. Most prominent is their native Maltese language, which itself throws up a few anomalies – it is the only Semitic national language in the EU, and the only Semitic language written in Roman script. Semitic is, of course, the language family that includes Hebrew and Arabic as its most famous members. Arabic is a language of many dialects, and from a historical perspective, Maltese is just another one of them, brought to the archipelago by Arab settlers from Sicily in the 11th century. The language was adopted by the local population and maintained during the continuous waves of bilingualism that repeated stints of colonial rule tend to encourage. Interestingly, Maltese only became the national language in 1934 and had previously been Italian. (Under Mussolini’s watch, Maltese was once absurdly decreed to be a dialect of ‘regional Italian’, when it is nothing of the sort – just ask your average Italian to try to decipher any full sentences in the language.) The resulting tongue, coloured with many loanwords from English, Italian, and French, is indisputably Maltese, with only very limited mutual intelligibility with other Arabic dialects.

It is then no surprise that one of Malta’s key assets is its population’s deep-rooted language skills, which are bound to make larger countries like France and the UK very envious indeed. Bilingualism is considered the backbone of the Maltese educational system, and the results are telling. According to a Eurobarometer poll, 88% of Maltese can also speak English, while 66% can speak Italian, with a further 17% boasting a command of French. German and Spanish have also been widely taught at a secondary level, and Hamilton speaks of a new curricular focus on strategically important languages like Russian, Arabic, and Chinese. It seems that a country that values foreign languages is a country that values co-operation on an international stage, and the rewards of this are great.

Hamilton certainly goes out of his way to stress the realism of the Maltese worldview. “We are like a pea in the Mediterranean… That’s spelt P-E-A.” Yet he claims to be “in awe of what a small country like Malta can achieve in International Relations.”

Arguably the stand-out episode in the country’s diplomatic history came with the Malta Summit of December 1989, just several weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was billed in the media as the most important meeting of its kind since the Yalta summit of 1945, and so the venue required a certain symbolism. The waters of Malta were eventually chosen, not just because the archipelago lies at the geographical centre of the Mediterranean where North meets South and East meets West, but also because neutrality is enshrined in the national constitution: “Malta is a neutral state actively pursuing peace, security and social progress among all nations by adhering to a policy of non-alignment and refusing to participate in any military alliance.” It was at this summit that George Bush Senior and Mikhail Gorbachev first met, and where they officially declared the end of the Cold War.

Malta was also in the vanguard of campaigners for awareness about another epoch-defining global issue. Climate change is now widely recognised as everybody’s concern, but Malta as a small island state is particularly attuned to the acute dangers of rising sea levels. Green-leaning policies may be commonly discussed today, but this was not the case in 1988 when the public figure David Attard spoke of the need for a “comprehensive global strategy to protect the weather and climate as part of an effort to ensure that our planet remains fit to sustain human life.”

But while Malta’s national outlook tends towards assisting in conflict resolution and encouraging larger powers to engage in dialogue, the country is not simply a bystander in the pre-eminent issues of our time. Its strategic location has brought it to the fore recently, as Hamilton speaks sadly of the refugee crisis that has brought the despair of those fleeing violent regimes and dangerous instability to Maltese shores. Even if many people set sail for Italy, the accidental destination is Malta with disproportionate frequency, as it is the first landfall from the African coast. And while space is a legitimate concern (the total landmass is notably smaller even than that of the Isle of Wight), the failure to prevent the deaths at sea of desperate people has become something of a national tragedy. In 2017, Malta will assume the presidency of the Council of the EU and will be looking to make their voice heard on this conspicuous issue.

This presidency coincides with another one in their 2018 presidency of the Commonwealth. While the organisation is not always at the forefront of people’s imaginations, its 53 constituent countries still account for 2.2 billion people, a third of the world’s population. Hamilton’s message is an endorsement of the validity of the organisation, and also of co-operation between its three EU states – Cyprus joins the UK and Malta in that trio.

There are many things we can learn from Malta’s experience – not just a potted history of Europe’s political and demographic development throughout the ages, but also an attitude towards the outside world that values the cultures of others while still retaining pride in its own. The multilingualism of the Maltese is a shining example in Europe, and at a time of rising isolationism, it serves as a timely reminder of the value of populations that are sensitive to other cultures and can engage fluently in foreign languages. This characteristic is of great credit to Malta, and other countries would be wise to emulate it at home.