Interview with the Chief Minister

in Features

”We have done so much since then, we have so much still to do.”

The Hon. Fabian Picardo QC, Chief Minister of Gibraltar, talks exclusively to Jo Ward on his 10th anniversary as leader of the GSLP, looking back on the past as well as forward to his future as head of the Government of Gibraltar. 

“I can tell you that I have a barometer of my time in Government, my son is nine years old, my wife got pregnant just after I had become leader of the party and just after we were married, and so I have a living barometer that reminds me of how long I have been in Government – and from a clump of cells to a champion nine year old footballer – my goodness we have come a long way,” the Chief Minister proudly states.

“One of the reasons that I think people fall out of love with politicians is if politicians pretend that they can resolve every problem and that is when you fall short,” the Chief Minister comments. “I think that we have ensured that we haven’t done that – we have been realistic in what we have said but sometimes people don’t hear what we say, they hear what they would like us to have said – but we have been very careful and diligent in ensuring that we have dealt with problems in the order of priority in which they manifest themselves.”

“Lawyer. Husband. Proud father of TWO beautiful boys & a gorgeous little girl” proclaims Fabian Picardo’s Twitter profile, highlighting his personal achievements. However, it is the unexpected events of the past year and a half that have had a huge impact on both his personal and political life. 

“The past year has been a life sucking, mind numbing, horrible experience, for everyone I think,” he says.  

“Remember that it is true that whilst others were locked down in effect by the Government, some people were spending more time at home than ever, but I was probably spending less time at home than usual. For me it was a little surreal and I have lived it in a different way to the way most people have lived these successive lockdowns and the difficulties that we have had.”

Images come to mind of the Chief Minister holding video conferences with other world leaders whilst smartly attired on the top half of his body but wearing pyjama bottoms are quickly dispelled. “I confess to having done something for my old college Gaudy where I appeared to be wearing the decent part of black tie – but it was early September and it is too hot here to wear trousers then,” he laughs. With a busy household and three children, how did he cope with home schooling? “My wife Justine and I employ a fantastic, lifesaving nanny for our children who is like the third parent in the home and without Sarah we would have found it almost impossible to continue with our obligations and our duties in this period.”

Back to a time when nobody knew there would be a coronavirus pandemic, the Government of Gibraltar were focused on other things. “We had just come out of a general election and we were looking at the possibility of Brexit towards the end of 2019 – that was put off for a shorter period and we were really working towards ensuring that we had our post Brexit arrangements finalised in time for the United Kingdom’s de jure departure from the European Union, but pandemic history got in the way,” the Chief Minister explains. 

On 31st December 2020, the UK and Spain announced an agreement in principle under which Gibraltar would join the EU’s Schengen Area, but the Chief Minister states that he had already been looking at the possibility of Gibraltar forming part of or entering into an arrangement with Schengen as far back as 2014 when Danny Alexander, then the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, came to Gibraltar. “I had also met with Cecilia Malmström who was then the Commissioner with responsibility for Immigration in the European Union and she had said that she saw the possibilities for Gibraltar to have a different sort of relationship to Schengen than the one that we have had until now.”

The Chief Minister explains that he had said at the time that if they are looking at Schengen they needed to consider what sort of relationship they would have with the Customs Union going forward. “It wasn’t however until last year – just before the pandemic hit – and I had said in the context of the negotiation on the future relationship with the European Union that we needed to consider the possibility of making a final decision which would be a decision for Gibraltar, for the United Kingdom, for Spain and for the European Union about changing Gibraltar’s relationship with the EU on immigration matters.”

After days of intense discussions and with just hours to go, the Chief Minister was able to announce in his New Year’s Eve Statement to Parliament that an Agreement had been reached regarding Gibraltar’s future relationship with the EU. The framework agreement opens the door to a treaty that could see Gibraltar become part of the Schengen area, effectively suppressing immigration controls at the border.

“Since then the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary Dominic Raab has been to Gibraltar and Gibraltar and the UK have agreed our mandate in a joint ministerial conference on how it is that we will negotiate this Treaty with the European Union, and the European Union and Spain in particular are considering how they will set out their mandate for the negotiation,” the Chief Minister says. “Once those two mandates have been published – until now only ours has been – we will see the start of the negotiations which I think can actually move with quite a bit of alacrity because a lot of the difficult balancing work has been done in the negotiation between Gibraltar, Spain and the United Kingdom.”

Moving on to talk about COVID-19 and the fact that Gibraltar has been held up as a beacon of hope on the world stage, the Chief Minister says that the reality is that it is only as a result of the United Kingdom having done such an excellent job in backing different vaccination projects and therefore being at the front of the queue to receive the product, that Gibraltar has been able to access the doses that have been needed to inoculate all the residents of Gibraltar and cross frontier workers.

“We would not have been able to access the vaccines otherwise so we have to thank the United Kingdom for providing the vaccines and we have to recognise the magnificent work that has been done by the Gibraltar Health Authority led by Minister Samantha Sacramento, but also in particular by those who were involved in the vaccination programme itself which enabled us to ensure that the vaccines we were provided were not sitting in a fridge at minus 70 degrees, but that they were getting jabbed into the arms of those who were – in keeping with the priorities set out by the UK JCVI (The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation) – the ones who should have been receiving the vaccine as soon as possible, and that work has really been remarkable.”

The Chief Minister went on to praise the work done by so many people, from the highest echelons of the British Government from the level of the Prime Minister, to the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary and the Minister for Health Matt Hancock, through to the Minister for Defence and the Armed Forces who ensured that the RAF would fly the vaccines in which couldn’t be flown in by commercial aircraft because of the dry ice required to pack them in. 

“We must also thank the Royal Gibraltar Police and the Gibraltar Regiment who escorted our precious cargo of vaccines and the GHA staff that jabbed it into the arms of our citizens, this is their success and I will be very keen at every stage not to attribute to myself any credit for it because it is the success of all those who were involved in the supply chain and then in the inoculation process that we today can enjoy what post-pandemic life may feel like in the rest of the world in the future, subject of course to the fact that we may have to go through all this again in the Autumn with booster shots and depending on variants of concern, but at least this is precious breathing space that we can thank all of them for.”

On the afternoon of the day we spoke, Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed Parliament about the new Indian variant and said that “it is still just a variant under investigation, not a variant of concern.” There are of course a lot of people in Gibraltar who have family relationships in the sub-continent and in this respect the Chief Minister went on to state that Gibraltar was adding India to the list of red countries where individuals will need to report, quarantine and test if they arrive in Gibraltar having been there in the last fourteen or twenty-one days. “I hope that we will soon be able to have a better understanding of what that variant means and whether we will be able to inoculate against it or whether our existing inoculation will protect us against it.” He added that he wants to ensure that India is maintained on a red list for as short a period as is absolutely necessary so that people can travel to and from their families in India as soon as possible.”

Part of the Government’s mandate was to deliver a greener Gibraltar and a child friendly city, but this hasn’t been without hiccups and public opinion has in certain cases made them change some of the planned projects. In July last year the Government released its plans for the beautification of Line Wall Road, to include a one-way traffic system, cycle lanes, green areas and promenades. “I said during the course of my New Year’s Eve address that I think we got that wrong, I don’t think there was a public appetite for the pedestrianisation of Line Wall Road,” the Chief Minister comments. 

“I have also made clear that our manifesto was designed to be delivered post-Brexit but that it was not designed to be delivered post a pandemic like the one that we have seen, and it is very likely that we unfortunately will not be able to deliver the most ambitious projects that are set out in our manifesto.”

Stating that the public finances of Gibraltar have been gutted by the pandemic in the same way that the public finances of most nations in the world have, the Chief Minister says that a lot of what the Government had wanted to do will not go ahead yet. “I hope that people will understand that because we have wanted to prioritise what we need to do over what we would like to do – it doesn’t mean that we are abandoning what we would like to do, but we do recognise that we have an obligation to do what we must in the context of the provision of health care, education and all of the basics, and when we have less money available we have got to ensure that we cover those before we move on to our other priorities.”

As part of the Government’s continuing policy to provide affordable housing for the people of Gibraltar, the Chief Minister said in July 2019: “When we build affordable homes, we are laying the foundations for building more Gibraltarian families. These are the building blocks of the longevity and strength of our nation’s future.”

“The number of homes that we are building both for sale as well as rental in our new developments is unprecedented and these are a set of projects that we consider to be essential,” he comments. “Hassan Centenary Terraces is already underway and a second phase will commence as soon as we have been able to clear the rubble from that area, and Chatham Views will start as soon as we have fully demolished West Side School.” Now that the new LNG power station has been commissioned the Chief Minister confirms that: “as soon as the old power station which used to run on grimy, smelly diesel has been decommissioned and is gone we will be able to see the building of Bob Peliza Terraces.” The Chief Minister confirmed that contracts are already being signed for the proposed developments at Hassan Centenary Terraces, Bob Peliza Mews and Chatham Views.

“We will be able to deliver those additional 2,400 units of affordable housing in the time that we expected that we would.”

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the tourism industry worldwide, but Gibraltar has been particularly hard hit as the Rock relies on the tourists that come through by car, air and by cruise ships with many companies that depend on the revenue from tourism, such as the hospitality and catering industry, suffering the most. Asked how Gibraltar will bounce back, the Chief Minister says that one of the things that he is very hopeful about is that Gibraltar will be on the green corridor with the United Kingdom. “Gibraltar is likely to be one of the very few European Jurisdictions to which British travellers will be able to come to without having to quarantine when they return to the United Kingdom,” he says. “If that is the case, and that of course is not a decision for us, it is a decision for the UK Government and we have to respect their autonomy to make the decisions that they consider to be safe for the people of the UK, then I think Gibraltar is very well placed to receive an influx of tourism this summer from the UK and I think they will like what they find in the refreshed Gibraltar that we have to present to them, and will therefore potentially be a source of returning visitors for many years to come.”

“Gibraltar is constantly being referred to in the media as the safest jurisdiction for Britons in Europe and I look forward to welcoming many of my British kith and kin to Gibraltar.”

The life of the Chief Minister is a constantly busy one but there has to be some kind of work/life balance and his ongoing fitness regime, including his daily cycle rides up the Rock, is well documented in the social media posts of Fabian Picardo often accompanied by some truly stunning early morning images. “I recognise I fell off the saddle over the second lockdown a little, the weather was awful and I couldn’t get up the Rock and that was as bad for my head as it was for my heart,” he comments. “Cycling up the Rock of Gibraltar has helped me in my mental health as much as it has helped me in my COVID and physical health – so I recommend to everyone that they should consider the possibility.”

Justly proud of Gibraltar, the Chief Minister’s message to inspire future generations of Gibraltar is that it is probably the most manageable quantity on the planet. “If Barrack Obama at the height of his powers had announced that he was injecting 100 million dollars into the economy of the United States that would represent barely 50 cents for every American, and if the Chief Minister of Gibraltar is enable to announce an investment of 100 million pounds on projects in the lifetime of one Parliament, then the effect on the daily lives of Gibraltarians is huge.”

The Chief Minister’s view is that Gibraltar is an oasis in what is otherwise a very cruel and difficult world. “I would simply ask my fellow citizens to spend some time reflecting on what life is like for citizens of other nations, particularly those nations around us – we live on the shores of the Mediterranean, we live on the southernmost flank of Europe and if anybody were to reflect for a moment how difficult life is everywhere else on the shores of the Mediterranean and in particular the southernmost flank of Europe and the northernmost flank of Africa, I think an appreciation of how well we have it in Gibraltar is long overdue and long merited and would inspire people of all political complexions in Gibraltar to appreciate a little more what we have and to protect it.”

When I interviewed the Chief Minister back in 2014, in response to a quote from the opposition at the time which said that: “Mr Picardo must get his priorities right and spend less time and money on parks and vanity projects and address Gibraltar’s energy needs” he said “I think it is a bit rich for those who have caused the problem to ask me to resolve it with a magic wand – I am no Harry Potter – I have never pretended to be.” Asked if he had managed to wave his magic wand in the interim years since those quotes, he replies: “Well there is no magic wand to wave but there is now a new power station which runs exclusively on LNG, a non-polluting fossil fuel, and we are ensuring that we can add renewable sources of energy to our grid and we have also added a lot of solar since then, so I think we have demonstrated that although we might not have been able to deliver things in the time that we might have expected because there might have been necessary delays along the way – you need to make sure that you get it just right.” 

“But I would say to the many, many ‘Draco Malfoys’ and to ‘He Who Must Not be Named” who oppose us politically that we will keep going and that we will show everyone in Gibraltar all the little things that they tried to hide in their Chamber of Secrets!”

Still relatively young for a politician, he turns 50 next year, how does the Chief Minister see his future panning out? “One of the key issues to understand is that the pandemic has deprived us of the first half of the lifetime of this Parliament and to understand therefore that the mandate that we took from the public in 2019 is not a mandate that we can fulfil, but that because of the pandemic and because of the Brexit negotiations we have an obligation to see this Parliament through.”

 “I said I would stand for election on three occasions, and I think I need to review that and in conversations with my family consider whether I should go forward to a potential fourth term – and if my party wishes me to lead it into its fourth potential election victory, if the public were to give us their support then and subject to all those caveats I am very clear that circumstances have conspired against me to require me to take very seriously the possibility of asking the public once again for their support.”

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