Long a Christian outpost against the Muslim Turks, Malta came under British rule at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the Royal Navy subsequently established a major naval base there. Britain granted the islands a degree of self-government in 1887 and full responsible government in 1921, only to take the latter away in 1933 when London feared pro-Italian sentiment. During World War II, Malta came under heavy air attack from the Axis powers, but the locals and British forces persevered.
In 1947, London restored self-government to Malta. In 1959, following long and heated disagreements between Britain and the left-wing Labour Party in Malta headed by Prime Minister Dom Mintoff, London again suspended the constitution.
Following the drafting of a new constitution in 1961, Britain granted Malta full independence on 21 September 1964. A mutual defense treaty gave Britain the right to retain military bases on the islands for another decade in return for modest economic loans and grants. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Mediterranean naval headquarters also remained in Malta, having been set up there in the late 1950s.
The Maltese economy struggled despite the large naval presence and tourism, and in 1971 Mintoff's Labour Party returned to power. Mintoff immediately insisted that Britain and/or NATO pay much more for facilities in Malta. The prime minister employed various intimidation tactics and asserted that the country's dependence on Western defense was irrelevant, or even detrimental, to its own security. In 1972, Britain and Malta managed to reach a temporary defense agreement. However, NATO's Mediterranean headquarters moved to Naples, and in 1979 British forces departed the island for good. Malta then became an active member in the Non-Aligned Movement and opted for neutrality to secure its independence, a policy that has been enshrined in the country's constitution since 1987. In May 1987, sixteen years of Labour Party rule came to an end with the election of Eddie Fenech Adami as prime minister. Adami also ended the close ties with Libya that had developed earlier in the decade. Malta applied to join the European Union (EU) in 1990 and became a member in 2004.
Frendo, Henry. The Origins of Maltese Statehood: A Case Study of Decolonization in the Mediterranean. Valletta, Malta: Interprint, 1999.; Mitchell, Jon P. Ambivalent Europeans: Ritual, Memory and the Public Sphere in Malta. New York: Routledge, 2002.; Pirotta, Joseph M. Fortress Colony: The Final Act, 1945–64. 3 vols. Valletta, Malta: Studia Editions, 1981, 1991, 2001.