I hope you have had a good and relaxing time with your family and friends over the Hannukah, Christmas and New Year season.
As we start to get back into our routines, I am sure we will be glad that we have been able to enjoy our end of year festivities free of disruptions.
We have been able to gather together as a community for our first Cavalcade since January 2020.
What we cannot do, however, is pretend that the pandemic did not happen.
Because the reality is that the pandemic defines the first part of this decade.
It will leave an imprint on all of us, on our nation and the world for generations.
In Gibraltar, this will be evident, in particular, in the impact on our public finances.
We used YOUR MONEY as a life line to pay salaries for private and public sector workers who were not at work.
We stopped collecting taxes and other payments from YOU to help YOU and businesses when we were in lock down.
And we funded everything the GHA and other agencies needed to deal with the pandemic.
Our finances are severely impacted for that reason.
That pandemic cost is what has taken us from surplus to deficit.
Additionally, the huge inflationary increases we have seen last year have affected public finances too.
The principal reason for that is President Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.
This has led to the cost of basics in the shops going up, increasing pressure on expenditure for all families.
As a result, the things we buy FOR YOU have also gone up since we prepared our Budget in March last year.
Whether it is fuel to generate electricity, or consumables for the GHA and other agencies, all costs are up.
These increased costs are unavoidable unless we stop generating electricity or stop funding health and other services, which we will not do.
In fact, at a time of massively rising costs of fuel, we have kept the cost of electricity lower than anywhere in Europe.
We have spent millions of YOUR money in continuing to subsidise YOUR water and electricity bills.
But the alternatives are as binary as they simple.
Put up YOUR bills even more or stop or reduce the production of water and electricity.
At the same time, to protect our most vulnerable we have put up the minimum wage, our old age pension, public sector pensions and disability benefits.
Any criticism of our public finances which ignores the effect of the pandemic or the huge inflationary pressures created by the war in Ukraine is dishonest and lacking in substance.
Criticism of my Government’s management of the public finances that PRETENDS that the financial impact of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine is anything but severe, is DELUDED and dangerously CYNICAL.
YOU know that such criticism lacks SOUND JUDGMENT
YOU know that it lacks SERIOUSNESS
And YOU know that it lacks SINCERITY.
I know YOU will not allow anyone to fool you into thinking that our programme of investment in YOUR public services in the past ten years is the problem.
That investment has been essential.
Because some TALK about change.
But WE have been the ones to DELIVER real and lasting change.
Let’s talk about some of the many changes we have already delivered.
Remember the old Bayside School?
We changed that and delivered magnificent new schools for our children there and in all other schools.
Three further new schools will open this year.
We changed the old KGV to the new Ocean Views.
Remember the old PCC at the ICC?
We have changed all that with our investment in new, bespoke Primary Care facilities for the GHA.
And we are changing families’ fortunes with our new affordable homes.
This year we will start the handover of new homes at Hassan Centenary Terraces.
The building of Bob Peliza Mews and Chatham Views will also finally commence.
We have changed our resilience when it comes to electricity generation with our new power station and our work on the grid – with a lot still to do.
Our investment in electricity infrastructure, sewage infrastructure and broadcasting infrastructure has been the real and necessary change that had to be delivered because it was long over due.
More is still to come.
The tender for the sewage treatment plant is about to be awarded.
Others talk about change.
But we have delivered change through careful investment of YOUR money.
And we will continue to deliver real change as we invest in our public infrastructure insofar as we are able to do so, whilst we prioritise re-establishing the stability of our public finances.
Of course, an additional pressure on our public finances arises from the ongoing effects on our economy of our departure from the EU.
In that respect, I want to be very clear with you tonight about our negotiations for a new UK/EU Treaty on our future relationship with the EU.
There is one thing that is NOT going to change whilst I am your Chief Minister.
We are never going to surrender even one iota of British Sovereignty in exchange for rights of access to the EU for persons, goods, flights or otherwise.
Clear and unambiguous.
No nuance or margin for doubt.
We are clear and unequivocal when it comes to sovereignty, jurisdiction and control as with everything else.
But we have to be equally clear:
What we are negotiating with the EU is massively complex.
From product labelling to the taxation of goods.
A final treaty will likely run to hundreds of pages.
We have to get every aspect right to ensure that there are no negative consequences for our economy or our autonomy.
So, our approach to the negotiations is to remain positive and strategic.
We are looking well beyond just the year ahead.
We are resolute in our defence of our fundamentals but pragmatic in our approach to areas where we can see benefits for our people and our economy.
We are always looking forward at how best we can deliver success for YOU, our people and our economy.
For the protection and the well being of our people and our economy are our obvious and overwhelming priorities.
YOUR well being is our overriding objective.
You have recently seen some of the issues that are bubbling under the surface of the negotiation.
I am sure YOU would each have taken the same position we have taken on those issues.
That is why I know YOU understand why the negotiations are taking so long.
I know YOU ignore the idea that we could have done a safe and secure treaty more quickly.
Any such suggestions are insincere.
Because I refuse to believe that YOU want me to do a quick deal and not the right deal if it can be done.
I can assure you of three key things.
We will continue to work night and day for a deal and we will not accept concession on fundamentals.
Similarly, if there is no deal for reasons we cannot control, I assure you we will be ready to mitigate such an outcome.
But that does not means that we will be able to deliver pre-Brexit normality in a ‘no deal’, post-Brexit situation.
But I can also tell you that I remain confident that there is a route to a treaty which does not require us to concede on fundamentals.
An agreement might initially be uncomfortable in some areas.
Much change is, even if simply because it will be different.
Just like signing up to membership of the EU might initially have felt uncomfortable in 1972.
But ‘No Deal’ will also be very uncomfortable.
Remember that when we were members of the EU the Union had the power of direct rule in Gibraltar.
EU Decisions and Regulations had immediate and direct effect in Gibraltar.
EU Directives also had to be transposed.
96% of us voted to remain in that relationship with the EU.
What we are now negotiating are arrangements only for immigration and movement of goods.
These require an element of agreement on standards in those and related areas.
The positive effect would be to deliver greater liberty than ever to move through Europe’s Schengen Zone and greater ease to buy and sell into the EU’s Single European market.
But we will not be members of the EU subject to all its rules and the direct effect of all of its decisions and regulations as we were for almost fifty years.
So, if we reach agreement, as I believe we will, it will be an agreement that is safe and that will be secure.
And it will not IN ANY WAY affect our exclusively British sovereignty, jurisdiction or control over Gibraltar.
In fact, the reality is that Gibraltar is now IRREVERSIBLY British
Our British nature and nurture is embedded in each of us.
The work we are doing for a treaty will not change that, our Constitution or our sovereignty or the sovereignty of any part of our precious Gibraltar’s land, sea or air.
The reality is that in this year, in 2023, and beyond, to be born a British Gibraltarian is still to win first prize in the lottery of life.
That is not to say that things are perfect in Gibraltar.
Far from it, of course.
There is a lot of work for us in Government to continue to do.
A lot of change for us to deliver.
We have significantly improved many things in the past decade already.
This year will be another year of positive change.
There will need to continue to be change in the GHA.
By the end of February, we will be delivering our overdue primary care appointment system for all children at the Children’s PCC.
There will be a dedicated number for those who need to book an appointment for a child at the CPCC.
There will be a long overdue change to our traffic flow as we see the opening of the tunnel under the runway, at last.
So change is coming to many areas.
But this is the change YOU voted for and YOU want to see.
In fact, we have been delivering change for a decade and we will not stop.
Not just talking about change.
Not just words.
Real change delivered through real action.
So as YOU look at the year ahead, let me be clear about some other key changes that YOUR government will deliver in 2023.
We will continue to work to grow the economy because that will deliver benefits to all of us.
We will continue to change our debt profile, because that will make our nation stronger and more resilient to future challenges.
We will continue to work to deliver change in our public services through investment in schools, education, health and new homes for our people and families.
We will also tackle unacceptable pockets of anti-social behaviour in our community.
And we will do that as we continue to work to change our relationship with Europe as we finalise negotiations for a safe and secure UK/EU Treaty.
I know that those are YOUR key priorities.
They are my key priorities too.
Finally, let me tell you that in difficult times, ONE thing is easy.
Getting up every morning with the singular determination to do what’s right for our community.
In uncertain times, ONE thing is clear and certain beyond question.
That no one works harder than we do for the good of Gibraltar.
In complex negotiations, ONE thing is simple and straightforward.
That Gibraltar’s British sovereignty is not and never will be on the table for discussion whilst I am Chief Minister of Gibraltar.
It is an honour to lead you as your Chief Minister in these times of change and challenge.
This year will also be an election year.
If Gibraltar decides that I should, I will be honoured to continue to lead you.
That will be up to YOU to decide later this year.
For now, on behalf of Justine, Sebastian, Oliver, Valentina and myself, I wish you and all of your family a healthy, happy and prosperous 2023.