New Year Message 2021: Sowing the seeds of a better future
by Dr Joseph Garcia, Deputy Chief Minister and Leader of the Liberal Party
I know that many of us will have been glad to see 2020 come to an end. It was not a good year. It has been a year of suffering, tragedy and death as humanity has wrestled with the effects of the worst pandemic since the “Spanish flu” that marked the end of World War One.
Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives all over the planet, many more continue to suffer the economic impact and the health consequences posed by Covid 19. Our lives have been changed beyond all recognition.
Gibraltar has proved to be no exception to the global rule. We too have sadly seen beloved members of our community taken from us before their time. We have seen our people suffer in the clutches of this deadly disease as the numbers infected have grown and the numbers shielding from it have shot upwards.
We are connected to the wider world. So this is inevitable.
However, Gibraltar too has risen to the challenge with pride. We saw that spirit in March when hundreds of volunteers came forward to help their country. We saw that too with the establishment of a field hospital in record time and in the creation of a world-topping testing and tracing programme that we can all be proud of.
No Government can win this battle without the cooperation of its citizens. Difficult decisions have had to be taken and implemented. There will be more. It is important that we all remain disciplined and that we continue to follow the rules. In our long and turbulent history there have been many occasions when sacrifices have had to be made by the few for the benefit of the many. This is the thinking behind self-isolation. Those who have the virus are obliged to stay at home so that the rest of the people can continue to move carefully and with caution. This logic is unassailable, as it is perfectly understandable and we must all respect it.
But know that there are better times ahead of us. A number of vaccines have been developed and thousands of doses will make their way to Gibraltar this month. A vaccine is not a cure but it will be a game changer in our quest to return to a semblance of normality.
The pandemic has interrupted the carefully laid plans and policies of Governments everywhere - in Gibraltar also. It continues to have a huge financial cost which will have a bearing on the timescale of what else can and cannot be delivered. This reflects the same situation that we can see developing all over Europe. Protecting our health service and saving lives is the priority.
One such smaller disruption, for example, has been to the plan to place a plaque at the Evacuation Memorial during December as a gesture of gratitude to the late Commodore Creighton. Some of you may know about his actions in French Morocco in 1940 in defence of the people of Gibraltar during the wartime evacuation. The plaque will be placed in coming weeks when other ways of honouring his memory will also be announced.
We should also recall that 2021 will mark 100 years of the establishment of a City Council in Gibraltar following the end of the Great War. This was a key step forward in our political and constitutional development and in our evolution as a people towards greater self-government.
In Government, throughout 2020, we have had to face the dual challenge posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and by our departure from the European Union at the same time. This has not been easy, in particular for a small country with a comparatively small administration. It put the same small group of people at the centre of working for a deal and planning for a no deal outcome at the same time.
Our departure from the European Union in January 2020 was always going to be an epoch-defining moment. The end of an era. Change of such magnitude often generates uncertainty. All the more so when Gibraltar, as we know, had voted overwhelmingly for the United Kingdom to remain in the EU in 2016.
We then set ourselves three objectives. The first was to secure the bilateral economic and political relationship with the United Kingdom. This was achieved early on. The second was a battle against the odds to secure Gibraltar’s inclusion in the Withdrawal Agreement and the transition. This too was achieved. The third and final phase was to secure an agreement on the future relationship.
Therefore the conclusion now of an agreement in principle on a framework for a future relationship with the EU, and the nearest EU Member State Spain, is very good news for Gibraltar. It is the culmination of this third phase and represents many months and years of hard work, where we have had to be agile, astute and intelligent as we tiptoed our way through a minefield to arrive unscathed at our destination. The outcome was the product of hundreds of hours of meetings in Gibraltar, London, Madrid and, more recently, virtual meetings on-line.
It is no secret that we have been looking at the mechanics to create border fluidity with the Schengen zone for a considerable amount of time. Over the years we have examined closely the different border arrangements that exist in different places.
The agreed framework, just settled on New Year’s Eve, now goes forward to the complex structure of a negotiation for a UK-EU Treaty about Gibraltar. This too is a considerable achievement.
Sadly, there are people who will never be happy with anything that the Government does and who are always ready to pick holes before even knowing the full details. The plain truth is that the amount of time, dedication, expertise and ingenuity that has been applied into getting the job done is without precedent. It is simply impossible for anyone else to have achieved more.
Moreover, it is important to remember that the alternative to an agreement would have been no agreement. This would have been a much harder place to be. Gibraltar would have become the only place in Europe with a hard border caused by a hard Brexit. Although we would adapt and we would survive, undoubtedly this would not have been in our best interests. It is therefore important to bear in mind that this alternative reality to the world of an agreement is incredibly unattractive. It would represent everything we have always strived to avoid and it does not bear thinking about.
This is our first week outside the European Union, without the cushion provided by a transitional period. Gibraltar is still emerging from a revolution in terms of what this means. We need to remember that we are no longer a part of the club. Life as a third country to the EU will be very different, even with an agreement.
We have argued from the outset that the border was 90% of our Brexit. This, unsurprisingly, is where we have focused our energy. The envisaged arrangements with Schengen will allow for improved border fluidity in the absence of controls on persons. This means that our land border is poised to become more fluid with Gibraltar outside the EU, than it was when we were inside. The irony of this will not be lost on anyone.
We now have much to look forward to as we move forward into 2021. The seeds have been planted for a better future relationship with the European Union, with the security of getting there hand in