Today we are celebrating the 91st birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. A few weeks ago, she celebrated 65 years on the throne. She is now the longest reigning monarch in the history of the British Isles.
Many momentous events have taken place during the 65 years the Queen has been on the throne. But few years can have had as many surprises as 2016. One of those surprises was on 23 June last year, when the people of the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. It was a surprise, but the result was clear. Delivering Brexit, and doing so successfully, is now the top priority of the British government. The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, will formally start the process of leaving the European Union later this month. And that will be followed by a period of intense negotiations with the European Union and its remaining member states, to agree the terms of the UK’s exit. That process is expected to take two years.
Now some of you may have spotted that the European flag is still flying up here on the stage with me. Let me reassure you that that is not some ghastly oversight by an inattentive ambassador. During that process of negotiation we will remain full members of the European Union, playing our full role in the organisation.
And let me say one more thing. While the UK will be leaving the EU, we will not be leaving Europe. We may be an island, but we are not going to pull up the anchor and drift off to another part of the world to seek better fortunes there. After leaving the EU, the UK will remain a European country, espousing European values, helping guarantee European security, and trading with our European friends and neighbours – and doing all of those things as vigorously as ever. And Britain will continue to play a major role, a global role, in the world. Our economy was built on global trade, and we will continue to campaign for free trade, and to fight protectionism. And, once we have finally left the EU, we will seek new free trade agreements with countries around the world, including of course with Guatemala.
2016 was a good year for Anglo-Guatemalan relations. The Foreign Minister, Carlos Raul Morales, visited London in May, and also had a brief meeting with the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in Serbia in November; and the Foreign Office Minister, Baroness Anelay, visited Guatemala in December. The Embassy has also been funding some excellent projects in Guatemala. We have been working in a broad range of areas, from empowering girls from less favoured areas to projects as varied as promoting transparency and Open Government, improve rates of tax collection, and creating sustainable livelihoods in the Adjacency Zone with Belize. We have just started an 8 million dollar project to help conserve the forests of Peten using space technology, working with the UK Space Agency.
And we have been promoting British culture. One of the highlights of last year for me was International Beatles Day in August, which turned out to be a marathon eight hours of iconic Beatles songs played by local bands. And I am delighted to say that in a few minutes time we will hear some of those songs from The Beatles and also Queen performed by the extremely talented Juan Guia and his One Man Band.
Guatemala is increasingly well known throughout the world for its coffee, for its lakes and volcanoes, for its Mayan ruins, and for its wonderfully warm people. But it is now also known for something else too, namely its fight against corruption. Guatemala is now widely seen as a model for the region, indeed for the world, in the fight against corruption. The British government gives its unconditional support to CICIG and its Commissioner Ivan Velasquez, and to the Office of the State Prosecutor and the Prosecutor General Thelma Aldana, for their unstinting work in fighting this scourge.
The British government promotes the universal human values of integrity, respect of human rights, good governance and the rule of law. A country which respects these fundamental principles will attract trade and investment, and will become more prosperous. And that is the main goal of the British Embassy here in Guatemala. Working with the government, people, civil society and the private sector, we want to help Guatemala attract investment and grow out of poverty; we want to help make Guatemala a better place.
Foreign investment and the private sector is key to this process, and we want to support the Guatemalan authorities in their efforts to improve the business environment here. The judicial reforms which are currently under discussion are a key part of this process, as is the fight against corruption. For the private sector to thrive, they need things like transparency, legal certainty, and clarity on taxation. And it’s a two-way process: private sector investors also need to share the benefits of their investment with local people, with the neighbours, including through the provision of jobs and services to the local communities. Successful companies are those which recognise this.
I am convinced that Guatemala has the potential to become a very attractive destination for foreign trade and investment, and I would like to see a greater British presence in this respect. Given also the opportunities presented by Brexit, I am pleased to announce that we will be opening a British Chamber of Commerce here later this year.
Finally, I would like to say a few words in English to the British community here today. [In English:] The British community in Guatemala is small but active. I have met many of you, and I am deeply impressed by the huge variety of things you all do. And I would like to say a special thank you to our Honorary Consular Agents for their support to the British Embassy, which is hugely appreciated. Thank you. [End of English]
I would also like to thank our sponsors of today’s event, namely the Cerveceria Centroamericana, the Distribuidora Marta, and also Wakami who made the lovely bracelets which we handed out earlier, and which is another example of the UK supporting the empowerment of women in Guatemala. And many thanks also to the One Man Band for agreeing to play this afternoon.
Thank you for coming, and I hope you enjoy the event.