2022: Difficult challenges and tough decisions
By Dr Joseph Garcia, Deputy Chief Minister
The traditional Christmas and New Year celebrations will have been very different for most of us this time round. Many will have exercised greater caution, gathered in reduced numbers, shielded the elderly and the vulnerable and prayed that next time round we will be free of Covid-19.
The year 2021 has sadly been a challenging one. Governments and peoples all over the planet have continued to endure the serious public health effects of a global pandemic coupled with the harsh economic consequences that this has brought in its wake.
The loss of life has been tragic. Five million people across the planet including one hundred of our own fellow citizens are no longer with us. No elected Government in our history has had to deal with the a pandemic on this scale. The ultimate responsibility for dealing with the Spanish Flu, which took hundreds of our people after World War One, was one primarily for the British colonial authorities who were then in charge.
Tough and unpleasant decisions have been required in the last 12 months and more will be needed going forward. This is what leadership is all about. When such decisions could have an immediate call on life and death they assume altogether different and much more significant proportions. Indeed, when Gibraltar last went to the polls in October 2019 who would have predicted the future that lay in store for us all in the two years or so that have elapsed since then?
The primary role of any Government is to protect its people and this was our guiding principle throughout 2020 and 2021. The practical impact of this is twofold and best seen in two areas. The first in lost revenue and second in increased expenditure.
This means that, as a consequence of the pandemic, the Government, with the approval of our Parliament, has spent more money and received less. That financial cost is spelt out transparently in detail in the Covid-19 Response Fund which is published on a quarterly basis and has now run up well over two hundred million pounds.
Dealing with all this has been the overriding priority of our small administration and has occupied the concerns and the diaries of Ministers and officials across the board. It has meant that during 2021, we may not have been able to attend to other issues of concern to our citizens.
This may be scant consolation for those waiting for a meeting or for that specific issue to be addressed but it is sadly a matter of fact that no elected Government here has been in this position before.
All Governments make mistakes and, by its very nature, Government is never perfect. There is and will always be room for improvement, particularly as we learn and understand the lessons from the events of the past.
If a global pandemic was not enough, our attention has also been diverted by work related to our departure from the European Union. This has added to the hours, days, weeks, months and now years that the Chief Minister and I have spent away from other matters. Indeed, the cross-cutting nature of the effect of our EU departure has meant all our colleagues have been involved to a greater or lesser
The huge irony of course is that 50 years ago, in 1972, the scene was set for the United Kingdom to join the then European Economic Community (EEC) together with Gibraltar. Yet on 31 January 2020, as we all know, we formally left the European Union and its transition period expired at the end of that year.
This EU-related work too takes time. It has occupied hundreds of meetings, thousands of hours, volumes of documents and diverted both valuable time and resources from other matters. The all-consuming nature of such work makes it inevitable.
It is essential once again to get it right and very often the solutions lie in the detail.
Unlike with the pandemic, people are not going to lose their lives here, but the importance of a successful outcome to the treaty negotiations is not lost on anyone.
The objective remains to carve out a future relationship for Gibraltar with the European Union which is in keeping with our well-known position on sovereignty. We will walk away from a treaty rather than compromise our birthright.
That is why the Government remains fully committed to an outcome which is based on the New Year’s Eve Agreement concluded together with the United Kingdom and Spain at the end of 2020.
Therefore, while we work constructively towards a treaty, Gibraltar will continue, at the same time, to prepare for the possibility of a no negotiated outcome.
However, it is important to emphasise that there are some areas where, despite all the planning in the world, it will simply not be possible to provide any mitigation and where the position Gibraltar ends up in will simply reflect what it means to be a third country outside the EU.
This may lead to greater bureaucracy, disruption and red-tape for citizens and businesses in our interactions with the EU as we adapt to a new and very different reality. Indeed, the aim of a successful treaty negotiation is precisely to pull us away from that unattractive alternate universe.
In short, we need to understand that we are all in it together. The huge effort that has been deployed to combat the pandemic and the resources and time devoted to leaving the EU and working out a future relationship with it, is for the benefit of every Gibraltarian and every single person who lives in Gibraltar.
These issues represent the bigger picture and the wider common good which we understandably may sometimes fail to appreciate when faced with important pressing problems of our own. All this matters because in the final analysis we will sink or swim together.
Therefore 2022 will bring its challenges too in these and in other areas. The pandemic already continues to evolve with new variants of concern and the negotiations with the EU are set to enter a crucial final stretch where we conclude a treaty or we walk away without one.
However, there are positives too.
The Government, against this difficult background, is set to continue with the largest school building programme that Gibraltar has ever known.
We invest in our young people because they are the future. The construction of affordable homes will continue too, adding to the over 1000 new homes that have been provided so far. All this is coupled with exciting proposals for the sensitive development of both the Eastside and Bayside areas, while we continue our work to gradually open up the Northern Defences and The Mount as public, open spaces for the community to enjoy.
2022 will see the 80th anniversary of Operation Torch, the first major Allied offensive of the War, into North Africa. It was launched in November 1942 and was planned and orchestrated by US General Dwight Eisenhower from tunnels inside the very Rock itself. During the War, Eisenhower, who was later elected the 34th President of the United States, became the first non-British person to command Gibraltar in over two hundred years.
Importantly, 2022 will also mark the Platinum Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen when Gibraltar will once again celebrate our special bond with our Monarch and with the Royal Family as a whole. We are supremely confident, that whatever may come our way in our relationship with the European Union, such bonds with the United Kingdom, underpinned by the values and the principles that we share, will remain unshakeable come what may.
And so, as we embark on a new year, we should understand that we will once again be called upon to overcome the challenges which come our way. There can be no doubt that the best way to meet those challenges is united, as our ancestors have done in similar situations over the centuries. That unity makes us as strong as the Rock itself.
I take this opportunity to wish you all a happy, healthy and successful 2022.