The strategic importance of the island of Malta was recognized in the time of the Phoenicians, whose occupation of Malta was followed by that of the Greeks, the Carthaginians, and the Romans. The apostle Paul was shipwrecked at Malta in AD 58, and the islanders were converted to Christianity within two years. With the official split of the Roman Empire in 395, Malta was assigned to Byzantium, and in 870 it fell under the domination of the Saracens. In 1090, it was taken by Count Roger of Normandy, and thereafter it was controlled by the rulers of Sicily— Norman and, later, Aragonese. The Emperor Charles V granted it in 1530 to the Knights of St. John, who had been driven from Rhodes by the Turks. The Knights surrendered Malta to Napoleon in 1798. Two years later, the British ousted the French garrison, with the aid of a revolt by the Maltese people. British possession of Malta was confirmed in 1814 by the Treaty of Paris.
During almost the entire 19th century, a British military governor ruled the colony. After World War I, during which the Maltese remained loyal to Britain, discontent and difficulties increased. The 1921 constitution granted a considerable measure of self-government, but political tensions reemerged, and the constitution, after having twice been suspended, was revoked in 1936. A new constitution in 1939 reinstated Malta as a British crown colony. In World War II the Maltese again remained loyal to the UK, and for gallantry under heavy fire during the German-Italian siege (1940–43), the entire population was awarded the George Cross.
Substantial self-government was restored in 1947. The Maltese, however, carried on negotiations with the UK for complete self-government, except in matters of defense and foreign affairs. In August 1962, Prime Minister Borg Olivier requested the UK to grant Malta independence, and Malta became a sovereign and independent nation within the Commonwealth of Nations on 21 September 1964. At the same time, mutual defense and financial agreements were signed with the UK. Under subsequent accords negotiated between 1970 and 1979, British troops withdrew from Malta, and the NATO naval base on the main island was closed.
On 13 December 1974, Malta formally adopted a republican form of government, and the former governor-general, Sir Anthony Mamo, became the first president. Dom Mintoff, leader of the Malta Labor Party and prime minister from 1971 through 1984, instituted socialist measures and initiated a nonaligned policy in foreign affairs. Although the Labor Party narrowly lost the popular vote in the 1981 elections, it retained its parliamentary majority; to protest the gerrymandering that allegedly made this possible, the opposition Nationalist Party boycotted parliament, and strikes and civil violence ensued. In January 1987, a new law guaranteed that, following future elections, the new government would be formed by the party that won a majority of the popular vote.
On 23 November 1985 Malta became the scene of one of the deadliest hijackings in history, when an Egypt Air flight commandeered by three Palestinian terrorists was forced to land there. In a gun battle, an Egyptian sky marshal on the plane shot and killed the hijackers' leader, and the pilot landed the plane in Malta. After an Israeli and an American passenger were executed, Egyptian commandos set off an explosive charge and rushed the plane, but 57 passengers and another hijacker died in the raid from smoke inhalation, explosive wounds, or gunshots. The surviving hijacker, Omar Mohammed Ali Rezaq, was released from prison by Maltese authorities in 1993 under a general amnesty program. He was later apprehended in Nigeria and extradited to the United States for air piracy, and convicted and sentenced in 1996.
In May 1987, the Nationalist Party won a popular majority but only 31 of 65 seats in parliament. In accordance with the new law, the Nationalists were given four additional seats, for a total of 35 in an expanded 69-seat parliament, and the Nationalist Eddie Fenech Adami became prime minister, replacing the Laborite Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici. The Nationalists were returned to power in February 1992 with a slightly higher majority. Eddie Fenech Adami remained prime minister. Vincent Tabone, president, had been elected in 1989.
Maltese politics have revolved around foreign policy issues, in particular, Malta's relationship with Europe. The Nationalist Party government has been a strong proponent of EU membership. In July 1990, Malta applied for full membership in the EU. However, after the Labor Party won the 1996 elections, the government's stance shifted towards maintaining neutrality. The Labor government also adopted economic policies, such as raising utility rates, that alienated both the electorate and elements within its own party, which withdrew their support for Prime Minister Alfred Sant. He called new elections three years ahead of schedule, in September 1998, and the Nationalist Party won a majority in a vote seen at least partly as a referendum on the EU membership question. In March 1999, Guido de Marco of the Nationalist Party was elected president by the House of Representatives. Having regained the post of prime minister, NP leader Fenech Adami moved to reactivate Malta's EU membership application and adopted policies—such as the reimposition of a controversial value-added tax—intended to pave the way for membership approval. Malta was one of 10 new candidate countries formally invited to join the EU in December 2002. Malta held its referendum on EU membership on 8 March 2003, with 53.6% voting in favor of joining the body versus 46.4% against. Accession is expected on 1 May 2004.
Elections were held on 12 April 2003, resulting in a win for the Nationalist Party (35 seats); the Labor Party received 30 seats. Fenech Adami stated the victory for the Nationalists represented a confirmation of Malta's "yes" vote to EU membership in the March 2003 referendum.