‘Protecting our people will remain a sacred priority’
New Year Message By Dr Joseph Garcia, Deputy Chief Minister
There can be no denying that Gibraltar, Europe and the world have faced a number of unprecedented challenges during 2022, and indeed for some years before that. These have delivered a devastating impact at a human and a wider economic and financial level. Yet we must look forward with hope to 2023 as the year when we finally overcome those threats, and as the moment when some semblance of normality is slowly restored.
The truth is that recent times have been far from normal. In government, the GSLP/Liberal period in office has been punctuated by crisis after crisis which have logically reduced the bandwidth available to deal with other matters. This is sadly a fact not an excuse. We have witnessed how Gibraltar is not insulated from the effects of what happens in the wider world around us. This could be a vote in the United Kingdom, a virus in China, or a war in Ukraine. The effects of each of these has reverberated cumulatively towards us like a shockwave across the Continent.
The negative impact of the cost of the pandemic, some £300 million to Gibraltar, has merged with the adverse economic consequences of that war in Eastern Europe. The latter has precipitated an increase in oil and gas prices which in turn has led to inflationary pressures all over the world. Electricity prices have shot up in some countries to well over 100% as a result. Here in Gibraltar, the increase has been capped at a more modest 8%, and both electricity and water continue to be heavily subsidised. Pensions, benefits and the minimum wage have been insulated precisely in order to protect the most vulnerable. The age of budgetary surpluses has everywhere given way to an era of deficits, debt and borrowing. Across the planet, the governments of all countries have reacted in the same way.
In addition to this, in government we have also had to manage a number of crises which have been the product of local events. In the summer of 2022, a fire in a tunnel inside the Rock knocked out the water infrastructure. Gibraltar had to manage on a reduced supply for a number of weeks, which saw the community pull together as so often happens in times of adversity. If this were not enough, the incident overlapped with the OS35 shipping accident which also needed to be dealt with and which has only now entered into its final phases.
All this has served to divert government time, resources, energy and attention from other more immediate matters of importance to the ordinary citizen. We have been very conscious of this reality and, in the circumstances, can only ask the public to understand and to bear with us. Perhaps no one single issue has dominated and absorbed our attention for longer than the question of our relationship with the European Union. In 2023 we will either have a treaty which governs that relationship or we will find ourselves with a non negotiated outcome, which will bring with it the full force of life outside the bloc. The status quo is not an option.
It is easy to forget that this saga commenced with a referendum six years ago - that represents more than half of our time in government! No other government in the history of Gibraltar has been called upon to deal with an event of such magnitude over such a long period of time. The detail of our EU departure has cut across every aspect of our lives. Someone once graphically likened untangling the UK (and thereby Gibraltar) from the European Union to removing an egg from a ham and potato omelette after having made it.
This is what we have been dealing with for all of six years. First the settlement of our bilateral post-EU relationship with the United Kingdom, then the successful conclusion of Gibraltar’s EU exit, which started with Foreign Minister Margallo in power, and finally the current phase to settle our future relationship. This has not been easy. It has in many ways been a long rollercoaster ride which is not yet over. There have been ongoing contacts between different parties and at different levels throughout in an effort to conclude a treaty.
But as we move into 2023, the political space in which to secure such a treaty starts to narrow considerably. In the event that it is not possible to reach an agreement, the government has already spelt out the detail of NNO in a booklet that was delivered to thousands of households in Gibraltar and published online. There have also been over fifty informational technical notices issued, briefings given to different stakeholders, and a Brexit email hotline remains open for any more specific questions. In government we have worked and will continue to work closely with the United Kingdom in the event of no deal. However, we remain fully committed to secure an agreement at the same time.
Despite all this, we have still managed to push forward with our flagship education policy. This has already seen the complete reconstruction and relocation of a number of schools into impressive, new state of the art buildings. This has included a new St Martin’s School too, which is a huge improvement on the previous facility. There are other school buildings currently under construction, with the new Bishop Fitzgerald, Governor’s Meadow and St Mary’s already well under way. Our commitment to future generations of Gibraltarians has continued to be unshakeable in this regard, no matter the wider challenges that Gibraltar has faced. In addition to this, the summer months will also see the delivery of hundreds of new homes.
This year there will be a number of notable anniversaries too. Only a few days ago, we marked fifty years since the UK and Gibraltar actually joined the European Economic Community on 1 January 1973. Both of us are now outside it. July 2023 will see 310 years since the signature of the Treaty of Utrecht which saw Gibraltar ceded in perpetuity to the British Crown. In a sense it will serve as a reminder of the birth of the modern day Gibraltarian, an event which stretches back in time for longer than the United States or Germany have existed as independent countries. It was the successors and founding fathers of that Gibraltarian nation who went before the United Nations in 1963 to assert their right to self-determination for the first time. That will be exactly sixty years ago this year.
It is not a secret that Gibraltar will be called to the polls at some point during 2023. The experience of government that our friends in the GSLP and the Liberals have accumulated over the last decade, and our track record in the face of a crisis, whether global or local, is second to none. We have already proved that we can rise to any challenge in order to protect our people, our sovereignty and our way of life. This is the first duty of any government and it will remain a sacred priority going forward.
May 2023 bring us all health, happiness, peace and prosperity.