On Wednesday evening, the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC) for Luxembourg held its Annual Members' New Year Cocktail, for the first time as an online event due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
BCC Chairman Daniel Eischen welcomed the some 50 members and guests, including the British Ambassador to Luxembourg, John Marshall, and the event sponsor Greenings. He noted that the BCC's "traditional" New Year cocktail was slightly different this year due to the health crisis and that this would be the last one with Ambassador John Marshall, who is departing Luxembourg in April 2021.
Daniel Eischen recalled that this year's event was being held on a historic day, with the swearing-in of the 46th President of the United States of America, Joe Biden. This day represented change, something which is at the heart of what has happened to all of us over the past ten months: change and resilience. He added that 2020 started off fairly positively before coronavirus shook up all of our lives. Comparing the pandemic to a marathon, he stressed that "the last few miles are the hardest".
That being said, the BCC managed to adapt quickly to this new "normal"; after taking a couple of weeks at the start of the pandemic to decide how to proceed, it rapidly acted and had a successful year overall, at least in terms of connectivity, allowing members to share their experiences and prepare themselves for what lies ahead. The BCC quickly opted for virtual conferences and launched the BCC's 12 Days of Christmas initiative to end 2020 on a lighter note. Mr Eischen concluded that it had been a challenging year but that the BCC had used this as an opportunity to reinvent itself, with some of these new concepts likely to remain in future.
After expressing his well wishes for the new year, the BCC Chairman gave the floor to Ambassador John Marshall, who began by lamenting the loss of BCC Honorary Chairman Jacques Loesch, who passed away in September 2020. The Ambassador then addressed four main subjects: COVID-19, Brexit, climate change and the UK-Luxembourg relationship.
Ambassador John Marshall spared a moment to think of those who have lost loved ones or suffered from coronavirus themselves this past year, as well as those who have struggled economically and / or emotionally. He wished everyone a "healthier, safer and better 2021 than 2020".
Turning his attention to the UK's withdrawal from the EU, the British Ambassador joked that many people over the past five years had told him they did not envy him his job, especially regarding Brexit. This past year, however, he did not envy any political leader their job of leading through the COVID-19 crisis. He stressed: "Balancing health and economic factors is not an easy job". The Ambassador added that the situation remains "extremely grim", particularly in the UK, where cases appear to be declining but deaths continue to rise. He urged everyone to be "patient and prudent for a bit longer" and stressed the importance of balancing hope with realism: vaccines give us hope but "things may not get that much better, that quickly". He added that challenges remained in 2021, with the potential emergence of new virus variants and the need to guarantee the equitable distribution of vaccines.
Regarding the UK-EU relationship, he described the 2019 UK General Election as a "watershed moment". This election, in which Prime Minister Boris Johnson secured a "comfortable majority", helped dispel uncertainty over Brexit, especially with the approval of the withdrawal agreement. The Ambassador described the negotiations that followed between the UK and the EU as tough, going to the wire and very last minute. Ultimately, however, they agreed on a deal that "protected both sides' red lines". He added that this deal was unpecedented in many ways (zero tariffs / quotas on goods, law enforcement and justice, etc.), although it was similar to what the EU has agreed with other parties in terms of services. Regarding the protection of citizen’s rights, he noted the example of the UK’s resettlement scheme, which has seen over four million successful applications so far, and recognised the similar processes going on in the 27 EU Member States. Whilst the process has been slow and / or complicated in some countries, the Ambassador was grateful that this has not been the case in Luxembourg, which has an existing residency system in place.
Ambassador John Marshall noted that the UK was no longer bound by EU law since the start of this year. Regarding the transport of goods, he noted that, to his knowledge, Luxembourg hauliers had not suffered delays, due to efficient preparation and engagement with clients. He was also thankful that British nationals in Luxembourg did not appear to have had the same issues getting on flights as residents of some other EU countries.
That being said, there are still some processes that need to play out in addition to the Brexit agreement, namely concerning equivalence in the financial sector and a Memorandum of Understanding which the UK wishes to sign with the EU on regulatory dialogue and cooperation in the future. The fact that a deal was secured means that the mood between the two parties is better than it might have been in a no-deal scenario, he continued, adding that he confidently predicts close cooperation, especially regarding climate change and foreign policy. The British Ambassador also noted the potential advantages of having a new US President who also attaches importance to working closely with allies to promote and defend shared values. He went on to note that Brexit fundamentally gives the UK freedom of action, but that we "will see what we do with that freedom of action in the years to come". Whilst this is a new phase in the UK-EU relationship, he expressed confidence that it will be a "close and mutually beneficial relationship".
Ambassador John Marshall then addressed the subject of climate change. He noted that the UK is hosting COP26 in November 2021, in Glasgow, adding that as president-designate of this process, the UK aims to raise climate ambition level to be able to reach Paris agreement goals. He explained that the UK had made significant announcements in this area in recent months, for instance its aim to reduce emission levels by 68% compared to 1998 by 2030. He added that this was also a key priority for the global network of British embassies and one of the areas in which he believes the UK will be able to work very closely with Luxembourg, due to their shared ambition on this subject.
Concerning the UK-Luxembourg bilateral relationship, the Ambassador said he hoped that the two countries would continue their close cooperation in the field of human rights. He noted that his successor, Fleur Thomas, and the new deputy chief of mission both have experience in trade investment and so they will look to develop that part of this relationship when they arrive in spring.
Ambassador John Marshall concluded by thanking everyone, particularly the BCC, for "the constant welcome" over the past five years. BCC Chairman Daniel Eischen wished the Ambassador all the best for his future projects.
Afer the speeches, participants were split into breakout rooms (on Zoom) where they could speak with one another in a more informal albeit virtual setting.