- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 9, 2003

VALLETTA, Malta, March 9 (UPI) — The tiny Mediterranean island of Malta Sunday became the first of the 10 European Union candidate countries to accept membership in a national referendum.

The unofficial result was close — 53.65 percent in favor vs. 46.35 against. Analysts said it reflected the island's uncertainty about EU membership despite a heavy campaign by the conservative Nationalist Party government.

The outcome was watched closely in Brussels because the referendum in Malta could have gone either way due to the strong challenge from the anti-EU opposition Labor Party.

A defeat in the first vote would have been deeply embarrassing for the European Union. Support for membership in the other nine countries — all in Eastern Europe — ranges from solid to very strong, and EU officials expect the other referendums to be plain sailing, beginning with Slovenia later this month.

But in Malta the vote this weekend was not binding, and the EU issue will face another hurdle in the next general elections, which some Maltese media said Sunday would be held in mid-April.

If all goes well for the Nationalists, Malta, with a population of 380,000, will become the smallest EU member.

A Labor win could bring the progress towards Brussels to an abrupt halt. The new government might opt not to take up the membership offer. Once before, in 1996, a Labor government froze Malta's negotiations with Brussels for membership, which were revived the following year with the return to office of the Nationalists.

EU sources say Maltese politicians were warned that there is no revolving door and this is the last chance for membership.

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