27 JANUARY 2001, Page 26


James Bartholomew on the anger in Valletta

as they prepare for a referendum on whether to join the EU

MY father-in-law, Wally, stands with me on a finger of land called Senglea, gazing out on the beauty of Malta's Grand Harbour. There are no office blocks to interrupt our view of the 16th-century honey-coloured city of Valletta on the other side. Wally is hying to explain the 'box barrage' to me. He is a gentle old chap now, but during the siege of Malta in the second world war he manned a 5.2-inch gun on a hill above the harbour. When the Stukas arrived to bomb the shipping, he says, he and his comrades fired again and again at the same, previously ordained, spot in an imaginary box above the water. 'It was reckoned to be more effective than trying to target individual planes. There were so many planes attacking then. So many bombs falling.'

Malta is now a tranquil destination, on the face of things. It has two cathedrals, one of which — a richly embellished building in the ancient walled city of Mdina — I consider to be the most beautiful religious building in the world, with the possible exception of Chartres. But a tourist has only to pick up a local paper to see that a new battle is raging. Next year the Maltese archipelago will have a referendum on whether to join the EU. Every day the pros and antis exchange shot and shell across yards of newspaper columns. In a religious country where manners are generally far better than in Britain, the EU debate inspires vitriol. The Eurosceptic leader of the opposition, Dr Alfred Sant, was the subject of a psychological analysis in a newspaper, which portrayed him as mentally unbalanced.

The place has a population of only 400,000, but in acrimony Malta punches far above its weight. It is as if, every day, Croydoners were buying one of the five or more local papers in which EU arguments raged and personal abuse ricocheted, before turning on one of the many local radio stations to hear yet more invective and propaganda. I don't know how they can stand it.

It is a particularly muddling battle, because everyone seems — from a British perspective — to be on the wrong side. The big-enders are cracking into the small end of the egg and the little-enders insist on favouring the big end. Lefties, who one

expects to adore the miserable, bureaucratic, homogenised-tax-rate EU, are against it. Righties, who ought to hate all that stuff, are in favour. I met Dr Sant, leader of the Malta Labour party, a New Labourish politician still cosy with the unions but at the same time a pragmatic graduate of Harvard Business School. He is a famously stiff character. 'You have to pay him to smile,' I was warned. But he found plenty to smile about as we discussed the faults of the European Union.

He does not want Malta to be forced to stop subsidising its union-dominated shipyards. He does not want Malta to stop protecting some of its thoroughly inefficient food production and subsidising the price of bread (best bread in the world, incidentally — my children liked plunging their little hands into a freshly baked loaf and stuffing it straight into their mouths). Dr Sant wants to keep out foreign holiday-workers who undercut Maltese workers. The only economic argument of his I warmed to was that Malta buys its wheat at the best prices from anywhere in the world. It can even buy subsidised EU wheat at knock-down prices (thus making the bread even more delicious). With this glorious exception, he has come to a beautiful conclusion on Europe for the most ghastly reasons.

Malta's strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean means that it has been controlled by virtually every power that has ever dominated this part of Europe. You name them, they have been there, from the Phoenicians to the British, which perhaps explains why the Maltese still think about war, and diplomacy. When they look over their shoulders, they see the stubbly chin and rotating eyeballs of Colonel Gaddafi and other strongmen of the Middle East. During my last trip I saw an astonishingly brief item in the paper about how customs officials at the man-and-a-dog airport had wanted to examine the contents of a Libyan plane that was about to leave. A dispute followed, but finally the plane left, unexamined. Local newspapers and the government made very little fuss, which is curious, considering that the Lockerbie bomb was allegedly planted in Malta. But in Malta they reckon they must go carefully. The Maltese feel vulnerable. So it is not altogether surprising that the right-wing National party would feel a whole lot safer as part of the EU.

You might ask: wouldn't Nato provide just as much protection? The United States is a member. That should deal with the problem, shouldn't it, and bring in lots of jobs around the Grand Harbour, too? Sadly, in Malta the idea is taboo.

Malta ditched Britain, Nato and Western capitalism in a rush of blood during the rule of Dom Mintoff, the notorious former Maltese prime minister, He cosied up to Libya, North Korea, China and other such beacons of prosperity and good government. Unfortunately, even though Malta's teenage rebellion is now over, not even the nationalists have quite managed to travel all the way back. Rejoining Nato would be seen as 'going too far', whereas joining the EU is regarded as an acceptable compromise.

It is frustrating. I have visited my in-laws on the rocky island many times in the past 13 years. Like everyone who visits, I have great affection for the place — potholes, inefficiency and all. I long to grab the lapels of fellow right-wingers there and say, for goodness sake, you are on the wrong side about the EU. You have a fabulous opportunity. You could make Malta a prosperous free-trade haven. You could make it the Hong Kong of the Mediterranean. The way is open to make Malta a successful offshore banking centre, but only if you do not allow Malta's rules to be written by the EU. Malta could be a low-tax headquarters for multinationals operating in Europe and the Middle East. You all speak English, many of you speak Italian and other languages. You have such blessings. Your tax levels are still relatively low. Please do not throw it all away.

It makes me sick to see that Malta has been promised a mere three votes in the EU, fewer than Luxembourg which has the same population. Malta is being dumped on even before it joins. I appeal to all the Marias, Johns and Josephs there — children are nearly always named after saints — to have the confidence to stay independent. Your political knockabout can be nasty and vicious, but at least it is your political knockabout. If you give it up, your political life will consist of waiting for the latest directive to thud on the doormat. The EU could smash your country to bits merely by setting a minimum wage at above reasonable levels for Malta, causing mass unemployment from Victoria to Marsaxlokk.

Brussels would not even notice.