- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 8, 2003

VALLETTA, Malta, March 8 (UPI) — The tiny Mediterranean island of Malta became the first of the 10 candidates for membership in the European Union to vote on entry Saturday.

Analysts were predicting a close run, with the conservative Nationalist Party government urging a "yes" vote, and the opposition Labor Party campaigning against membership.

The outcome will not be known until late Sunday, but recent polls showed that between 49 and 53 percent favor entry. Twenty-two percent are against, with over 20 percent undecided despite a heavy publicity campaign by the opposing sides.

The referendum is not binding on the government in Valletta. Analysts also say it is unlikely to influence referendums in the other nine candidate countries, scheduled for later this year. But a rejection in the very first vote is bound to be an embarrassment for the EU.

More important for the Maltese, the vote is likely to influence the result of the general election to be held later this year.

The government has been extolling the economic virtues of membership. Opposition leader Alfred Sant says Malta would be better off as "the Switzerland of the Mediterranean."

Sant proposes a free trade area with strong EU ties. A U.S.-trained former diplomat, he would like to establish closer economic and political ties with the United States.

For some Maltese, one strong argument for joining, according to knowledgeable observers, it that EU membership will reinforce Malta's European identity. The island has a strong European cultural and historic heritage, but lies on an invisible dividing line between Europe and North Africa, and the Maltese language has Arab roots.

Libya is less than 200 miles away. In the 1970s, successive Labor governments forged strong ties with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

If all goes well for Maltese Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami, Malta would be the smallest state in the European Union, with a population of 380,000, and an area of some 90 square miles.

However, Sant has left it unclear — despite his declared opposition — what he plans to do should Labor win the election. In 1996, when Labor was in power Sant froze negotiations, but did not pull out. Talks were resumed the following year when the Nationalists staged an electoral comeback.

EU sources say the Maltese have been warned that this is Malta's last chance for membership. The sources say there is some irritation in Brussels that the smallest country should be so undecided, when Hungary, the Czech Republic and other East European governments are poised to welcome membership at the dawn of a new age for their respective countries.

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