The five Maltese islands—Malta, Gozo, Comino, Comminotto, and Filflawith—have a combined land area smaller than Philadelphia. Malta is located in the Mediterranean Sea, about 60 mi (97 km) south of the southeast tip of Sicily.
The strategic importance of Malta was recognized by the Phoenicians, who occupied it, as did, in turn, the Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans. The apostle Paul was shipwrecked there in A.D. 60. With the division of the Roman Empire in A.D. 395, Malta was assigned to the eastern portion dominated by Constantinople. Between 870 and 1090, it came under Arab rule. In 1091, the Norman noble Roger I, then ruler of Sicily, came to Malta with a small retinue and defeated the Arabs. The Knights of St. John (Malta), who obtained the three habitable Maltese islands of Malta, Gozo, and Comino from Charles V in 1530, reached their highest fame when they withstood an attack by superior Turkish forces in 1565. Napoléon seized Malta in 1798, but the French forces were ousted by British troops the next year, and British rule was confirmed by the Treaty of Paris in 1814.
Independence and EU Accession
Malta suffered heavy attacks by German and Italian aircraft during World War II, but was never invaded by the Axis powers. It became an independent nation on Sept. 21, 1964, and a republic on Dec. 13, 1974, but it remained in the British Commonwealth. In 1979, when its alliance with Great Britain ended, Malta sought to guarantee its neutrality through agreements with other countries. Although Malta applied for membership in the European Union, the Labour Party, after winning the election in Oct. 1996, froze Malta's EU application and withdrew from the NATO Partnership for Peace program in an effort to maintain its neutrality. When the Nationalist Party won the Sept. 1998 elections, however, it revived the EU accession bid, and in May 2004 Malta joined the EU. In July 2005, Malta ratified the proposed EU constitution. The ruling Nationalist Party was narrowly reelected in March 2008, ensuring Gonzi a second term as prime minister.
2013 General Election Brings Change
On March 9, 2013, Malta held its general election. The Labour Party won 39 seats in the House of Representatives, where 35 seats are needed for a majority. Therefore, the Labour Party defeated the Nationalist Party, which had been in power for the last 15 years. The Labour Party won with a 36,000 vote margin, a landslide in Malta.
On March 11, 2013, Labour Party leader Joseph Muscat took office as prime minister. Previously, from 2004 to 2008, he had been a member of the European Parliament. He was leader of the opposition from October 2008 through the 2013 election.
Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca was nominated to succeed George Abela as Malta's ninth president on March 1, 2014. After Parliament unanimously elected her, Preca took office on April 4. At the age of 55, she became the youngest president and the second woman after former President Agatha Barbara.