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Malta Officials Claim Victory in EU Vote

March 9, 2003

VALLETTA, Malta (AP) _ Malta’s government claimed victory Sunday for those who support joining the European Union, with about 30 percent of votes counted from a referendum on the archipelago.

Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said supporters of EU membership were leading with between 52 percent and 53 percent of ballots cast.

Compete results were expected later Sunday.

``It’s a great and historic victory for the country. The vote shows that the electorate has given a clear-cut indication that it wanted the country to join Europe,″ Gonzi said.

Opposition Labor party officials, who oppose EU membership, said they thought it was too early to assess the results from Saturday’s referendum.

More than 290,000 citizens, roughly three-quarters of the population of Malta’s three inhabited islands, were eligible to vote, and election officials said turnout was about 91 percent.

Malta was the first of 10 EU-candidate nations _ almost all in former communist Eastern Europe _ to hold a referendum on whether to join the bloc next year, as invited.

Pre-election polls had shown voters divided over membership, with some concerned that joining the EU could jeopardize the Malta’s valued independence.

New members to the European Union will receive billions of dollars in aid but will have to open their markets and conform to the bloc’s regulations.

``Europe won’t command us,″ said Marisa Rapinett, a 38-year-old homemaker who voted ``no″ in the capital of the island nation, whose towns of sun-bleached stone buildings resemble Arab towns in north Africa.

Conservative Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami came to power in 1998 elections seen as a mandate for his Nationalist party’s championing of EU membership.

In recent months, however, labor union leaders warned that joining the bloc could cost Maltese jobs as protectionist barriers come down under EU rules.

``We are a small island. We’re always suspicious of foreigners,″ said sociologist and Maltese professor Godfrey Baldacchino.

But while independence is a ``key element of the Maltese psyche,″ he said, ``it doesn’t make much sense in a globalized world to be based on the assumption that we can do it alone, we can go it alone, we don’t need alliances.″

Slovenia’s referendum is next, on March 23. Other EU candidates with referendums pending include Poland, where a strong farming lobby fears agriculture will suffer from joining the bloc, as well as the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary and Slovakia.

Cyprus’s membership will be decided by its parliament.

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