Monday, 30 May 2011

Malta says 'I do' to divorce

By a slim majority, the Maltese voted to legalise divorce in a referendum held Saturday in the tiny Mediterranean island nation. 52.6% of people voted 'yes' to make it legal to divorce your spouse, and the conservative prime minister, who campaigned for a 'no' vote, conceded that he will respect the will of the people and change the law. Malta is the only EU country in which divorce is illegal.

The referendum's result is being heralded as much more than a change in the country's marriage law. For many inside and outside of Malta the vote signals that the island, which for hundreds of years was run by a Catholic religious order with origins in the crusades, is ready to shed its identity as a 'Catholic state'. Apart from the Phillipines, the only other country in the world where divorce is illegal is Vatican City.

The country's Labour opposition leader called the vote, "the birth of a new Malta." The Malta Star wrote on Sunday, "The people haven’t just voted ‘Yes’ to divorce, they have signalled they are happy to embrace the modern age. The new Malta isn’t condemning and stifling, it is relaxed and open.” Saviour Balzan of Malta Today told the Associated Press that the vote will bring Malta closer to Europe culturally. "This is a conservative society, but Maltese still live like Europeans," he said. "This regularizes their lives."

Many people reading this news today are probably quite surprised to learn that divorce is still illegal in an EU country. Indeed the fact that this law is even still on the books in 2011 is a reminder of how much of an oddity the EU's smallest member state really is. Malta is the most religious country in the EU, with 95% of people believing in god compared to an EU average of 52% according to a 2005 Eurobarometer poll. The lowest EU rate of belief in God is in Estonia with 16%.

Malta is one of only six European countries (excluding the microstates) to have a state religion. Four of those countries (Denmark, Norway, Iceland and the UK) have majority non-religious populations and retain the state religion as a vestige of their monarchies or history. But the other two, Greece and Malta, maintain deep connections between their state religions and policy, legislation and daily life. The EU's other most religious countries, such as Poland, Ireland and Italy, don't have anywhere near the same degree of connection between the church and the government.

Greeks are Eastern Orthodox, which makes Malta the only non-microstate European country to have Roman Catholicism as its state religion. The Vatican has taken this duty very seriously, and it wields enormous power in Maltese government. The religious order that once ruled the island, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, is based at the Vatican and still retains a claim over Malta under the terms of the Treaty of Amiens. Although it does not in actuality control the country, the order itself is widely recognised as a seperate sovereign entity – regularly receiving diplomats from other countries as if it was a country. Earlier this year European Parliament president Jerzy Buzek paid a diplomatic visit to the order's Grand Master.

And yet even with all its influence, the Vatican's tireless campaigning for a 'no' vote in this referendum was unfruitful – barely. It is a sign that the Catholic church's control over the island may be slipping since the country's accession to the EU in 2004.


Captain Kid said...

I read that the Vatican didn't campaign at all and that divorces are also illegal in the Philippines.

The Order of Malta is not just "treated as if it was" a state. It is legally (!) established as a sovereign subject. As far as I know, there are only three sovereign subjects which are not states, the other two being the Holy See (de facto the Pope) and the Red Cross.

Anonymous said...

This is truly shocking, I can't believe the European Court of Human Rights never weighed in on this. How can this ban on divorce be consistent with EU human rights law???

Captain Kid said...

I don't think divorce is a human right...