Maltese poll sets course for Europe

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The Independent Online
Malta votes today in an election that could determine whether it joins the European Union. Eddie Fenech Adami, Prime Minister since 1987, and his Nationalist Party want to enter the EU, but the Labour Party of Alfred Sant is committed to withdrawing Malta's application.

A few thousand votes either way could prove decisive. Malta has 275,000 voters out of a population of 363,000; turn-out is traditionally around 90 per cent. In the last election, in 1992, the Nationalists took 34 seats to Labour's 31 in the 65-member parliament. This time, the Nationalists are urging voters to give them credit for an economic performance that includes an annual growth of 6 per cent and unemploymentwell below the EU average.

The EU has pledged to open membership talks with Malta and Cyprus six months after its Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) on revising the Maastricht Treaty. The IGC is thought likely to end in the middle of next year, so accession talks could start in early 1998, leading to Malta's full membership by 2000.

Mr Sant advocates a special relationship falling short of full membership; he says many EU regulations are inappropriate for a small island such as Malta and that EU agricultural policies would drive up costs. One of his main promises has been to remove the 15-per-cent VAT on consumer goods introduced by the Nationalists. That would disqualify Malta for EU membership, since VAT applies to all member-states and finances EU activities.

The Nationalists say that if Malta joins the EU, it may receive about pounds 75m a year in economic assistance. They claim that the chance of unrestricted access to a market of more than 350 million people is too good to miss.

Labour has made the point that EU membership might conflict with Malta's neutrality as the EU develops its common foreign and defence policies.

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