The National:

Back in 1959 The Times reported that “Malta cannot live on its own”.

But today, Maltese EU law professor Justin Borg-Barthet insists nobody would contemplate a referendum on Malta returning to UK rule.

However, he said: “The longer story is a lot more complex than that.”

As Malta marks 59 years today since it became independent from Britain in 1964, we spoke to Professor Borg-Barthet about how self-determination came to pass for the Mediterranean island and how things have been economically and politically since.

How did Maltese people feel about independence?

Prior to September 21, 1964, Malta had never been an independent nation, having been ruled by a variety of empires throughout history including Britain, with Malta having become a crown colony in 1813.

But the island and its people had always had a separate identity and throughout the 20th  century varied opinions emerged about the future of the nation, particularly as self-government was denied to the Maltese people on several occasions.

There were some who thought Malta should become part of Italy – though that view became unpopular after Italy invaded the island in 1940 - and some who thought Malta should become a part of the UK. A referendum on integration into the UK took place in 1957 which saw 77% of those who voted approve the proposals, but it was later deemed illegitimate because it had been boycotted by the Nationalist Party.

Borg-Barthet, a professor in EU law and private international law at the University of Aberdeen, said: “After 1957, both the Labour Party [which had supported integration before] and the Nationalist Party took the view Malta should be independent.

READ MORE: Independence is Normal: Cyprus thrives despite persistent divides

“The Nationalist Party had long held that view but there were some previous splits over the extent to which Malta should be independent or integrate with Italy. But post-war it was very much pro-independence and the Labour Party shifted, having a mantra that basically said we’re either equal to the UK or separate.”

How did Malta become independent?

A new constitution was adopted in 1961 that effectively acted as a precursor to the independence constitution that was drawn up in 1964.

A de facto independence referendum was held in May 1964 asking whether the Maltese people agreed with the constitution – rather than asking directly, yes or no, whether they wanted the nation to be independent. The constitution was approved by 54.5% of voters and the result took effect on September 21.

Since then, the centre-left Labour Party and centre-right Nationalist Party have dominated politics in Malta, something which has caused some problems in the years post-independence.

How has Malta fared since independence?

Borg-Barthet was adamant nobody in Malta would want to give up the nation’s independence, particularly as – apart from a short period in the 1980s – there has been constant economic growth.

He said it was “absolute nonsense” Malta could not cope as an independent nation.

The National:

He added: “Small states have the significant advantage of flexibility and the detriment of vulnerability. They are vulnerable to internal and external pressures but they can respond very quickly because they are small. That’s true of Malta and it would be true of an independent Scotland.”

But while there has been success on the economic front, he was keen to stress that politically, the country has at times experienced a rocky road with periods of political violence.

In 2017, there was huge uproar in the country after anti-corruption investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated by a car bomb.

She was killed after she levelled a series of corruption allegations against prominent people, including ministers in the island’s Labour Party government. Her murder raised suspicions that some of the people she was investigating could have been involved in plotting her death.

The year Caruana Galizia died, she effectively triggered an early election by publishing allegations linking Joseph Muscat, the then-prime minister, to the Panama Papers scandal, which exposed the use of tax havens by the rich.

Brothers George and Alfred Degiorgio admitted to her murder last year and were jailed for 40 years.

Borg-Barthet said: “Maltese history over the past 60 years, in economic terms has mostly been a story of growth. In political terms, it’s been varied.

“What Scotland needs to think about is how it deals with its own vulnerabilities. What are the vulnerabilities in Malta that resulted some of these poorer outcomes? In part its because the electoral system, which invariably results in complete control going to the governing party.

“Scotland does not have that vulnerability thankfully because it has a system that almost guarantees pluralism.”

Currency and central bank

Malta’s central bank was established in 1968, a few years after independence was declared.

Throughout the period of British rule, British currency was used in Malta along with some other currencies - such as the Sicilian dollar - also circulating. In 1972, Malta changed over to a decimal currency and abandoned the British system of pounds, shillings and pence.

READ MORE: Independence is Normal: Jamaica’s gradual gain of power

The Maltese pound was eventually renamed Maltese lira in 1983 and in 2008 the country joined the euro and adopted its own coins.

Borg-Barthet said a shift to the euro had been positive for Malta and Scotland should not be afraid of any debate around it.

He said: “The unpopularity of the euro is very much a British preoccupation, mostly south of Berwick. We have a ridiculous discussion about the euro in Scotland, people saying we’d have to join it.

“Speaking as a European lawyer, no we wouldn’t. No state has ever been forced into the euro, it’s a question of whether they are able to or want to.

“Secondly there are very good reasons to want to join the euro. It is a relatively stable currency and it is a reserved currency, so other people want to buy it, and that is not the case with smaller currencies.”

Abolition of the monarchy

Queen Elizabeth II was given the title Queen of Malta when the nation became independent and she remained head of state for a decade after Malta cut ties with Britain.

But in 1974, the constitution was amended to establish the Republic of Malta, with a president – elected by Parliament - replacing the monarch as head of state. It has been - and remains - a member of the Commonwealth.

On abolishing the monarchy, Borg-Barthet said: “Some took the view it was a terrible slight to the Queen who had a great love affair with Malta [Prince Philip was stationed there with the navy]. It was where she was last free essentially.

The National:

“But the majority of parliament and people supported the republican constitution. It was a time when the assertion of independence was very fashionable.”

A few years after the abolition of the monarchy in 1979, British naval bases closed on Malta following the expiry of a defence agreement.

Joining the EU

Malta became a full member of the EU in 2004 following a referendum the year before, in which 54% of people voted in favour of joining the bloc.

The foundations of Malta’s relationship with the EU though, according to European Commission, were laid many years before upon signing an Association Agreement in 1970 which called for the creation of a customs union based on free trade between Malta and the European Economic Community.

It had also originally formally applied to join the EU in 1990 but this was temporarily halted in 1996 due to a change in government.

Borg-Barthet said: “Within the EU, Malta has had an outsized contribution. The current president of the European Parliament [Roberta Metsola] was in my class at university. What that shows is there is nothing stopping smaller states contributing on the international stage.

"There’s been a huge economic boom since joining the EU partly through structural funds. Malta has been able to set its own fiscal policy in a manner that’s very attractive to EU businesses – practically no corporation tax in some cases."

Lessons for Scottish independence: Borg-Barthet warned Scotland must be aware of its vulnerabilities as a small state if it becomes independent, but all the while insisted there is no reason why small states cannot stand on their own two feet. He also suggested Scotland shouldn’t be afraid of any negative connotations of joining the euro, nor feel compelled to join it.