Like Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol where the author was attempting to communicate a radical political message in a form that would help to effect real change, Jo Ward talks to the Chief Minister about the past, present and future of Gibraltar.
It has been documented that as a boy growing up in Upper Town the young Fabian Picardo said that it “always made me think about the huge potential that the bay of Gibraltar could have as long as we were able to work together with our Spanish neighbours.”
Looking back, how does that make the Chief Minister feel now that he is the one that may be able to deliver on that thought? “We are on the cusp of delivery on the Treaty,” he replies, continuing to say that delivering the Treaty would be a huge success on behalf of the negotiating team of the United Kingdom and the European Union and therefore of Whitehall and the Gibraltar Team that he has have had the privilege to lead. “It is also a success for our Spanish colleagues who have worked to get the European Union interested in this negotiation.”
“We are close enough that we might soon be able to say that we have agreed the principles of the Treaty, which will be quite something because the complexity of this agreement is something that those who complain we have taken too long really fail to understand.”
There aren’t many people who have been serenaded by The Hon. Fabian Picardo, but as he considers the successes of the past year he breaks into song with the first two lines of ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham!
“2021 wasn’t my toughest year in Government, but it was the toughest year I have ever had in my life,” the Chief Minister states. “We lost more Gibraltarians to one cause of death than we have ever lost even in war, we lost more of our revenue than we have ever lost, and we gave away more of our money than we have ever given away.”
“Our key achievements were communicating with people in respect of the pandemic, dealing with how to pay the additional BEAT payments that we paid to companies and ensuring that we gave additional assistance through not enforcing Government levies,” he says. “All of these things were much more complex than the simple and straight forward 2020 system where you were giving people money so that they could survive.”
“Not only were we bringing back communications with the rest of the world, at the same time we saw the European Union accept the start of negotiations between the UK on the issue of Gibraltar with a mandate that was completely unacceptable and which resulted in very difficult negotiations – so it was one hell of a year!”
The Chief Minister tells me that 2022 has been slightly better but still not easy. “You don’t sign up for a job like the one I do if you want is an easy ride,” he remarks.
This has been the year when the Government has been accused by the Opposition of a ‘failure to deliver affordable housing estates’, and whilst The Hon. Fabian Picardo agrees that there is currently a shortage of affordable housing he comments that the Government are going to deliver more affordable housing in twelve years than the GSD ever did in sixteen. “It is important to judge a criticism against the reality of what objectively has been impossible – so if you look at the numbers of homes that we have delivered between 1988 and 1996 – and the number of homes that we have delivered now between 2011 and 2022 – the GSLP has delivered more affordable housing than any other party in the history of Gibraltar.”
He goes on to say that “we wanted to have delivered even more but of course the pandemic stopped us from breaking ground on two of our key projects – Bob Peliza Mews and Chatham Views – so once we deliver those we will be far ahead of any entity in the delivery of housing, so when you look objectively at the criticism that has been made and you judge it against the record of delivery, the Opposition should wash their mouth out with political soap and water!”
During the past year the cost of living and inflation rates have been rising – as they have in most places – but what has the Government done to help the people of Gibraltar who are struggling on a daily basis? “The key factor here has been the war in Ukraine and that is what has driven up two things, first of all the cost of energy and because energy pervades everything that we do, in particular in the things that we sell, it has pushed up inflation.”
“What we have done in Gibraltar which we have been keen to ensure people understand is that we have capped the increase in the price of energy in a way that is much more designed to deliver to working people than any other European democracy, or indeed anywhere else in the world that is not an oil producing state,” the Chief Minister says. “We have ensured that pensions have increased and we have ensured that the minimum wage has gone up – more than it has ever gone up in our history, and it has gone up by 8.5% up to £8.10.”
In June it was said in Parliament by GSD MP Roy Clinton that Gibraltar is on a “public finance knife edge” balanced only by increased borrowing that has buried the community “under a mountain of debt”. Asked how Gibraltar will pull out of a deficit, the Chief Minister answers that the situation in which we find ourselves is akin to the situation that every European democracy, and indeed all states except the oil producing states, find themselves in. “At the time of Covid we decided to pay everyone who had been locked down by us a salary based on the minimum wage less taxes and social insurance,” he states. “For staying home we gave you £1,100 for a few months, so the cost of that and funding the GHA through the Covid period, funding our companies directly where we gave them big payments and foregoing revenue, because we kicked forward tax liabilities and social insurance liabilities – the cost of that is in the region of £350 million plus.”
“All our politicians agreed that we should do this and now the question is am I going to be the one holding the baby of responsibility?” The Chief Minister says that he is very happy to be because he was ready to do this two years ago, is ready to stand up having done it now and he is ready to work to pull us out of it now too. “At the same time as we have raised the minimum wage, ensured that our pensioners get an increase in the state pension and welfare benefits and we have capped the cost of energy and we have also put up taxes by 2% for two years.”
Although he admits that will not fill the £350 million to £500 million pound deficit in our public finances, it will start to. “We will also put up other costs to ensure that we start to recover the costs of the Covid pandemic – it is essential that we do that – when I did that in June in my budget people complained that I was raising taxes and yet you look at what happened in the United Kingdom in September – when a different sort of budget was tried – which was simply to reduce things to create economic stimulation without providing for repayment of the public finances and we saw how the markets reacted to that.” The Chief Minister says that the budget that we saw two weeks ago from the United Kingdom was a budget much more brutal than the one he had to deliver in June but was more akin to what he had done and that is what people called ‘responsible’. “In Gibraltar there is no austerity but there is a move to ensure that without austerity and in a responsible way we are bringing back stability to the public finances.”
The New Year will hopefully see the delivery of the new Airport Tunnel and the Chief Minister confirms that they have put out a tender for the management of the tunnel. “It is a very sophisticated system which operates to the current modern standards of how a tunnel should be created, run and managed but of course this one also goes under an airport so different issues arise and we are ready to see that start of operation in the first quarter of next year.”
There is also the prospect of the new football stadium. “This is a magnificent project that is going to produce the stadium that Gibraltar needs which will be a national stadium, so it can’t be compared to stadia which do not host Champions League matches,” the Chief Minister states. A cost of £100 million has been mentioned, but The Hon. Fabian Picardo clarifies this by saying that it is not only the cost of developing a stadium, but ancillary things such as apartments, a hotel and commercial facilities. “You need to be able to sell those ancillary things in a way that pays for the first one completely so that you have no capital outlay for the stadium,” going on to say that it is a way of creating jobs, economic growth and lasting facilities for Gibraltar.
Looking further into the future, what is the Chief Minister’s message for the people of Gibraltar?
“We have been through the most difficult period in our modern history in the past thirty-six months, and we are now at a fork in the road,” he states. “With the Treaty our future will be bright with the United Kingdom and with access to Europe for goods and for people, but if we go down the other fork in the road and we have no Treaty our future is equally bright but with a different sort of economic activity and adapting ourselves to different rules on mobility.
“Given the security we have in the Freedom of Trade Agreement that we have with the United Kingdom – there is no reason not to be optimistic about Gibraltar’s future, no reason not to continue to believe that Gibraltar’s economy will grow, that socio-economically Gibraltar will continue to thrive.
Gibraltarians are not just here to stay, they here to grow and they have shown that Gibraltar belongs only to the people of Gibraltar who will make all decisions about its future. Whoever leads Gibraltar in the future needs to always look up towards where we are going and not down to those sniping at their ankles and the people of Gibraltar will then always prosper.”