18 DECEMBER 2002
By Kurt Sansone
The Prime Ministers statement in parliament on Monday leaves no doubt that in the first parliamentary sitting of the New Year government will present a resolution paving the way for a referendum five weeks later.
Addressing parliament at the first chance after returning from the historic Copenhagen summit, Dr Fenech Adami said that parliament will get the opportunity to debate the package negotiated in January, after which the deal would be submitted to a referendum for popular approval.
According to the Referenda Act, a resolution has to be passed in Parliament, after which the electorate is asked to approve the contents of the resolution in a referendum.
Although the Prime Minister made no reference to the presentation of a resolution, the promised debate is expected to end with a vote on a resolution. After the resolution gets parliamentary approval, the Prime Minister will then advise the President to issue the writ for the referendum to be held in not less than five weeks.
If Parliament is reconvened on 6 January, then the most likely date for the referendum is Saturday 22 February unless the Prime Minister opts for a longer referendum campaign.
A referendum in February would mean Malta would be the first of the accession countries to go to the polls, preceding Cyprus, which intends going to the polls at the end of March.
The law stipulates that the referendum question has to have a clear Yes or No answer. Over the coming weeks a decision has to be made whether the referendum question would simply ask people whether they want Malta to join the EU or whether they want Malta to join the EU on the basis of the negotiated package.
The latter option would require government to clearly outline the negotiated package, including the finer details of how the financial package is to be apportioned between cash flow and structural funds.
On 13 December Malta was officially invited by the EU member states to join the union on 1 May 2004 in what promises to be the EUs largest enlargement since its inception. Negotiations with 10 candidate countries closed on Friday.
The accession treaty with all prospective member states shall be signed in April in Greece. The respective treaties would then have to be ratified in each of the EU member states and the individual accession countries
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With the election expected to be held soon after the referendum government has two options, assuming the referendum gets a Yes vote. The first option is for government to first sign the accession treaty and then go ahead with ratification in parliament before heading into a general election. Or else government may opt not to ratify the accession treaty before the general election and leave ratification for the next government.
The former option means that a prospective Labour government would have to pass a resolution to annul the ratified treaty.
Government officials told The Malta Financial and Business Times that in all likeliness everything should be over by June the latest. This would hopefully bring the long period of uncertainty over EU membership to an end once and for all.