On the 31st March 1979, Malta saw the very last ship of the British forces leaving our shores. Commonly known as Freedom Day, this day marked the end of the dependence on British and Nato Military presence in Malta.
Freedom Day would not have been possible without the granting of Independence in 1964 and the proclamation of the Maltese Republic in 1974. Thus, these three were steps towards the achievement of true political freedom and, ultimately, the opportunity of governing one’s own country.
Jesmond Saliba analyses academic research done in Malta and elsewhere about the situation which led to the agreement with the UK and NATO after 1971 and which came to end in 1979 and the relevance of this day in the country’s foreign policy in the following decade.
From a British perspective, the end of the empire was rarely a neat or seamless process. Elements of empire often persisted despite the severance of formal constitutional ties. This was particularly so in the case of Malta which maintained strong financial and military links with Britain long after formal independence in 1964.
Despite the significant constitutional advances in the early 1960s, strong ties between Britain and Malta, especially in the military and financial spheres, endured beyond formal Maltese Independence in 1964.
In 1971 the Labour Party won the parliamentary elections and Dom Mintoff took up the responsibilities of Prime Minister. At that time the greatest challenge to the Maltese Government was to carry out a reform programme which would end the country’s dependence on other countries. Malta’s economy had to be modernised and for this purpose not only money was needed but also it was vital to go out of the frameworks outlined by the two agreements signed with the United Kingdom in 1964 – the Financial Agreement and the Defence Agreement.
Mintoff decided to break this economic dependence by revising those acts. The Financial Agreement aimed at helping Malta with the transformation of its economy. In order to function properly as a fully sovereign state, Malta’s economy had to undergo a process of transition from “military” economy to “civil” economy.
Malta was not a “fortress colony” any longer and so it was essential to change its economic reality. The Defence Agreement defined the conditions under which the British could use the military base in Malta. The presence of the British soldiers on the island was vital for its economy not only because of the financial incomes which were of great importance for the budget of the state but also because of workplaces.
The provisions included in the document were to come to an end in 1974 and in 1971 Malta’s economy was not really prepared for it. In this case the Prime Minister made his mind to negotiate higher fees for the use of the military facilities, longer stay of the British soldiers on the island and more restrict conditions of their functioning there. All this was to be made in such a way which would curb the dependence on Britain.
In order to achieve his goal, Dom Mintoff had to show that the relations Malta had with the West were not the only line of its foreign policy and that there were more partners on international scene than just the Western European countries.
The negotiations were indeed very stormy and complicated. In the view of the United Kingdom and NATO, which was also making use of the military facilities, Mintoff wanted too much. But the Maltese Prime Minister thought otherwise. Dom Mintoff used every possible technique to achieve his goal.
The bargaining techniques adopted by Mintoff completely took the Maltese people by surprise and perplexed Britain and NATO. After a lot of negotiations both sides finally agreed to a compromise. The agreement was signed in London on 26 March 1972. Thanks to this agreement, Mintoff managed to get an annual rent of 14 mln GDP for the use of the military facilities. In addition, Italy offered Malta a payment of 2,5 mln GDP and the United States provided a loan of 5 mln USD.
According to the agreement Malta was entitled to make the military facilities available not only to the United Kingdom but also to any other country, providing that this country was not a member of the Warsaw Pact.
It is important to say that in the act it was stated that the base in Malta could not be used as a base in a military attack against any Arab country. This provision was included mainly because of the fact that in 1956 during the Suez war Great Britain attacked Egypt from Malta and this decision was taken somehow beyond the competence of the Maltese Government.
The 1972 Defence Agreement was to expire in 1979. Fulfilling the terms of the act, British soldiers left Malta on March 31, 1979. Malta ceased to be a military base which was serving a foreign country.
This new situation entailed not only economical consequences but also demanded changes in the political field. Malta’s position had to be redefined. That was the reason behind the switch in the Maltese foreign policy of the 1970s and 1980s, when the Government decided that Malta should adopt the policy of neutrality and non-alignment.
In 1973 Malta applied for the Non-Aligned Movement membership. In spite of having foreign soldiers on its territory, Malta was admitted to the organisation. The Maltese Government declared that the functioning of military facilities on the island as well as the presence of foreign armed forces there was vital for country’s economy and promised to dismantle the base in 1979.
But as non-alignment seemed not to be enough to provide Malta with political and economic stability, the Government made a decision that Malta should adopt the status of neutrality. However, in order to do so, unilateral declaration was in- sufficient. Neutrality had to be recognized or guaranteed by the other states. The two superpowers of the time – the United States and the USSR – had to accept the status of neutrality as well due to the fact that according to postwar division of the world Malta belonged to the Western sphere of influence. The status of neutrality together with the membership of Non-Aligned Movement would mean the policy of equidistance which was seen as desirable by the Maltese Government but not really well perceived by some other countries, especially those which belonged to the West.
Finally an agreement was reached with Italy. On 15 September 1980 Malta and Italy signed a document which included the declarations of both the countries con- cerning independence, sovereignty and neutrality of Malta as well as integrality of its territory. The financial protocol which formed a part of the agreement provided financial support for Malta. Later on the status was also confirmed by the USSR.
On 27 January 1987 the status of neutrality and non-alignment was entrenched in the constitution.
In December 1989, the superpower leaders (Presidents George Bush Sr. and Mikhail Gorbachev) held a three-day summit on nuclear disarmament at Marsaxlokk harbour on the Russian liner Maxim Gorky. The fact that the summit was held in Malta implied the formal recognition of Malta’s neutrality because other summits were held in neutral countries, namely Finland, Switzerland and Iceland.
Dependence and independence: Malta and the end of empire – Simon C. Smith Professor, Department of History, University of Hull.
Malta’s national holidays as a reflection of history and identity of the Maltese people – Agnieszka Syliwoniuk-Wapowska
Jesmond Saliba is the Founding and Managing Partner of Diplomatique.Expert