Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 29 May 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
General Affairs Council: Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
I warmly welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for European Union Affairs, Deputy McEntee, back to the committee this afternoon as part of our regular engagements on the work of the General Affairs Council. The Minister of State will update the joint committee on issues which were discussed at last week's meeting in Brussels, including the EU's next five-year strategic agenda and Brexit contingency planning.
The next few months will be of great significance for the European Union. Last week, the citizens of the 28 member states voted in the European Parliament elections forming a new European Parliament and it would be neglectful of me at this stage not to take this opportunity to wish every person from Ireland who has so far been elected to the European Parliament, from whatever political parties and none, every good luck, success and every good wish on their new venture. Some of them have been re-elected. Others have been elected for the first time. It is important for us as a committee and all of the members, again in a completely non-political way, that we consider them all to be flying the flag for Ireland, for us and for our citizens. It is only right and proper that we wish them well today and that we support them in every way we can.
A new European Commission should be in place by November and a number of senior roles will change over. Now is a time of calm before great change and renewal and it is an important time for us to focus on the future direction of the EU.
I would normally read out the usual reminder of the rules on privilege but, as the Minister of State and the officials are familiar with them, I do not have to do so. However, I remind our guests of their application. I, again, welcome the Minister of State and warmly welcome her officials, who are always excellent and hardworking on behalf of all of us.
I invite her to make her opening comments.
I thank the Cathaoirleach and the members for the invitation to address the committee. I apologise in advance if my voice starts to go but I have a bit of a cold.
I join the committee in wishing our new MEPs every success. I look forward to working with them, as I know the committee does, in the coming weeks and months.
As usual there is much to report upon since my previous visit. Last week I attended the General Affairs Council where we focused on the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and preparations for the June European Council. The agenda for the upcoming European Council includes the next strategic agenda for the Union, high-level appointments, the MFF and climate change.
I propose to focus on three headline issues, which are the EU’s strategic agenda 2019-2024, an update on the other issues discussed during last week’s General Affairs Council and an update on the negotiations for the UK's withdrawal from the EU and our preparedness and contingency plans.
I will first turn to the EU strategic agenda for 2019 to 2024. In 2014, the European Council adopted the "Strategic Agenda for the Union in Times of Change", setting out five key overarching priorities to guide the work of the EU. Change is a constant and it is right that we look again at our priorities to ensure that we focus on meeting the needs and expectations of our citizens and prepare for the challenges of the future. Ireland began preparing its contribution to the new strategic agenda in 2017, when I joined the Taoiseach and Tánaiste at the launch of the Citizens’ Dialogues on the future of Europe. These were designed to help us learn about what mattered most to our citizens in the debate on the future of Europe, which took place throughout member states. The Chairman will recall that this committee also held its own hearings on the future of Europe. The Chairman spoke at our national event in May last year in Dublin, for which I thank him.
In April, the Cabinet approved the publication of a national statement on the European Union. This is a whole-of-Government response to the issues raised during the Citizens’ Dialogues and is Ireland’s contribution to the next strategic agenda. It was laid before the Oireachtas and was the subject of statements in Dáil Éireann just before the Easter recess.
The Europe of the future must meet the ambitions of our citizens. It must deliver on the unfulfilled potential of the Single Market – one fit for the digital age. It must be ready for the opportunities and the challenges of the digital transformation, protecting the most vulnerable in our society. It must be a global leader in finding solutions to climate change. It must play a central role in advancing the sustainable development goals and it must stay true to its values.
Heads of State and Government began their discussions on the strategic agenda a few weeks ago in Sibiu, with a view to adopting it at the next European Council in June. In the meantime, we will work with the other member states to ensure that our priorities, defined in Ireland's national statement, are reflected in the new strategic agenda.
With regard to the other issues discussed at the General Affairs Council last week, I refer to the MFF. During the debate on this occasion we discussed the neighbourhood, development and international co-operation instrument, NDICI. The new proposed instrument will see a major restructuring of the EU’s fund for external action. The proposal is to integrate the European neighbourhood instrument and the European Development Fund, which used to be managed separately, into the EU budget. This is intended to reflect the EU’s strategic priorities, notably the neighbourhood countries and Africa. In my intervention, I supported the integration of the European Development Fund within the NDICI. Integration will allow for greater coherence, more efficiencies and simplified procedures, or to remove duplication where we can. I also indicated that Ireland supports the proposal to integrate the European neighbourhood instrument into the NDICI. We feel that the current level of proposed ring fencing for the neighbourhood instrument should allay any concerns about the importance and priority that the EU attaches to relations with our nearest neighbours. I am aware this was a concern for many of my colleagues, and those concerns were outlined. We feel the ring-fencing of this funding should allay many of the concerns that were raised.
It was clear that there is no clear majority at the Council in favour of either option and it is likely that these two issues will have to be discussed again as the MFF discussions progress. This was the last thematic MFF discussion under the Romanian Presidency. At the June European Council, leaders will assess whether we are on track to reach an overall agreement in the autumn or whether more time will be needed. I commend the Romanian Presidency for its dedication to these important negotiations. I am sure that the incoming Finnish Presidency will do its utmost to guide us towards agreement by the end of the year, which we would very much favour.
The other item on the General Affairs Council agenda was preparations for the European Council meeting in June. The European Union elections signal the start of the next institutional cycle in our Union. As part of that cycle, the new strategic agenda will be adopted by leaders at the Council next month.
There will also be a series of personnel changes at the top of the EU’s main institutions. A new Commission President and College of Commissioners will be appointed. The European Parliament and European Council will also elect new presidents and Mario Draghi will be replaced this year as President of the European Central Bank. Yesterday, the Taoiseach attended an informal European Council to start the consideration of these high-level appointments ahead of the European Council next month. These appointments should reflect geographical balance and demography to ensure large and smaller countries are represented in the highest positions in the EU.We must also ensure we have gender and political balance, which should also be taken into account.
The EU has implemented measures aimed at combatting disinformation in election campaigns. The European Council will consider a Presidency report on lessons learned from the European parliamentary elections. Ireland fully supports EU efforts to combat the manipulation of our democratic systems. Domestically, our interdepartmental group on security of the electoral process and disinformation has been working to identify best practice to secure our electoral processes. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has also helped to establish a media literacy campaign entitled Be Media Smart.
At the June Council, leaders will also discuss climate change, in light of the UN climate action summit this September and the development of a long-term EU climate strategy. Our Deputies and Senators will be aware that an all-of-Government plan will be completed shortly to deliver on the Government's ambition to make Ireland a leader in responding to climate change. This follows from the cross-party and cross-committee report that was published this year.
The General Affairs Council next month is expected to discuss enlargement in advance of the next European Council, at which a decision is envisaged on opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. Ireland believes that the future of the Western Balkans lies in the European Union. I visited Skopje and Tirana in February and was impressed by the progress made on key reforms. The Commission published its opinion this morning and based on its positive recommendations, we would like the Council to take the decision to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania in June.
The Commission updated Ministers on their recent communication on strengthening the rule of law within the Union. I am aware that Deputies have raised this issue on many occasions. The communication is the start of a reflection process on rule of law issues. According to the Commission, there is a need for better promotion of the rule of law, early prevention of risks or breaches and more effective responses. This matter is of serious concern to Ireland as the rule of law is a fundamental principle for all EU member states. We look forward to the specific proposals from the Commission, which will hopefully be published next month.
I will now turn to the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union or Brexit. The April European Council decision to extend the Article 50 process reduced the risk of a no-deal scenario in the immediate term. The political impasse in the UK, however, and the failure of the UK Parliament to ratify the withdrawal agreement, means that the threat of a no-deal Brexit in October remains. There are those who would say that it is even more severe than the March deadline. The process of replacing Prime Minister May will begin in the week starting 10 June. It would not be appropriate to comment on this internal matter for British politics, other than to say I wish Prime Minister May well. Her efforts to find a path forward in a very difficult situation demonstrated a commendable commitment and sense of duty. We look forward to working constructively with the next British Prime Minister and his or her team. A change of Prime Minister, however, will not change the facts of Brexit. The European Council has made it clear that the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, cannot be reopened or renegotiated. The European Council has also said, however, that should the UK’s position evolve vis-à-visthe future relationship between the EU and the UK, the EU is prepared to reconsider the political declaration on the future relationship. The responsibility for avoiding a no-deal outcome lies firmly with the UK. Our position has remained the same for some time. The best way to ensure an orderly withdrawal and to fully protect the Good Friday Agreement is to ratify the withdrawal agreement. It is vital, therefore, that the UK, regardless of whoever is the next Prime Minister, makes good use of the period between now and 31 October to try to find a suitable way forward.
Last week, the Cabinet indicated its approval for Government to continue its Brexit planning and preparedness work for all possible outcomes, including no deal. This work will continue both at home and at EU level. Since December 2018, we have focused on putting the necessary contingency measures in place to mitigate the potential impacts of a no-deal UK withdrawal. Much of this work, as outlined in the Government's December 2018 Brexit contingency action plan and subsequent updates, will continue to be relevant in any scenario.
The Government is determined to make good use of the period afforded by the extension to further deepen our no-deal responses. This will include adding to or refining completed measures to maximise our readiness.
We have recruited additional staff as part of our work to prepare our ports and airports for all Brexit scenarios. The Revenue Commissioners, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Health Service Executive recruited staff in time for a no-deal Brexit last March, but they would still be needed in a range of Brexit scenarios. Additional training for these officers will take place over the summer months.
Many of the preparatory measures undertaken by businesses and outlined in the Government’s Getting Ireland Brexit Ready public information campaign are good business practice and will benefit stakeholders, whatever the outcome of the UK withdrawal. We will continue work to encourage businesses to prepare, including by taking practical steps such as registering for economic operators' registration and identification, EORI, numbers. Most Deputies and Senators who have been out and about for the past few weeks are aware that there may be a sense that this has gone away and will not happen but we encourage everybody to continue to engage and take practical steps to prepare themselves and their businesses for this event. The Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Act 2019 was signed by the President on 17 March and its provisions remain ready to be deployed if and when required. We are preparing for Brexit with the full support of the European Commission and our 27 EU partners. Many of the actions aimed at mitigating the effects of a no-deal outcome will be taken at the EU level, as they involve sectors regulated by EU law.
Earlier this month, I welcomed the European Commission announcement of an exceptional aid fund for the beef sector in the context of Brexit. The Government had sought such provision for Irish beef farmers, both at meetings of the EU Council of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and in direct consultation with the Commission. It is something constantly raised by members, particularly in the context of raising awareness of the need to retain our overall Common Agricultural Policy budget. We are grateful to the European Commission, in particular Commissioner Hogan, for the assistance. It is another example of the importance of EU solidarity in the context of the economic challenges caused by Brexit.
It is clear that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU will have a significant impact on Ireland, whatever its outcome. Government, businesses and citizens must make the necessary preparations to minimise its impact, and we are determined to be as ready as we can be, whatever the outcome. I thank members again for the invitation to address the committee and for their attention this afternoon. As always, I am happy to take any questions that the committee may have.
I do not mean to put the Minister of State on the spot with a question and she can answer it in rotation with the rest of the members. She mentioned Commissioner Hogan and the package for beef farmers. Since that announcement there have been many questions as to how it will make its way to the people who need it most, to put it bluntly. These are the people producing beef, not the factories, exporters or anybody else. It is about the farmer who produces the beef. How can they see the bottom line panning out better for them? Will the Minister of State give clarity as to the way the package could have an impact in a positive way on the small farmers producing or buying calves, fattening them and keeping them for a winter or two and then selling them to the factories? In many cases they only break even or lose money. Others have a marginal profit, meaning the industry is on its knees. That is why it was acknowledged that a package was needed. Getting a package is one thing and I am grateful for it. The members know I do not care who helps and I will compliment anybody who does it. How will the money get into the pockets of the right people and those who deserve it?
I echo the Chairman's sentiments on the people who should see benefit from the package. These people are in the critical area of production for the country and the European Union. It is tied to and is essential to exports and jobs in the European Union. I compliment the Minister of State on her interaction and work throughout the European Union advertising Ireland's cause right across the Union. The causes of Ireland and the EU have converged to a large extent so I compliment her on her role in this respect. We are in a formative era for the EU and this is a new challenge, with new personnel, issues and challenges. There are matters that will have to be resolved within the European Union by the Union and its people in the next five years. We should wish the Minister of State well in her role in dealing with issues wherever they may arise.
We have mentioned in past times the need to ensure equity and that the Single Market applies right across the board to everybody. We must be able to buy and sell into the Single Market and be treated equally within it. We should not be penalised any more than anybody else in the Single Market. We must have the right, the space and the ability to prosper, and we have that now.
Climate action is a major challenge for every country. Some countries contribute to a greater or lesser extent than others to carbon footprints. We must note that we have a role to play. Agriculture can and will play a role on the basis that it is already very efficient in its treatment of the environment, as it has proven over many years. For example, I do not accept the notion that we should have a knee-jerk reaction and take one sector of the economy out of business because of the idea that is a sole contributor to the problem. We are not the sole contributors to the problem across the European Union and we are like everybody else. Some areas are better than others. It is essential we deal meaningfully with the matters that must be dealt with. For example, electricity generation leaves a major carbon footprint. This is key to what we must deal with in future both from an economic, environmental and competition perspective. We have a role to play and we expect to be able to play it. We do not have to destroy our economy to do this.
We must welcome enlargement as we are Europeans and others wishing to come on board the Union are Europeans as well. There is a commitment to the acquis communautaire, and new members would be as entitled as we are. We are becoming part of a bigger Union but equal contributors to it, and that is the way it should be. There can be no exceptions and we are all part of the same group. Government policy is absolutely correct in that it is proper to welcome enlargement. However, we must insist that countries coming on board that committed to the acquis before coming on board remain committed to the acquisafter membership of the Union is granted. That is critical. This leads to application of the rule of law and we must insist the rule of law applies right across the European Union. If there are exceptions, compliance with the acquiswould no longer exist and a pretence otherwise would be wrong, misleading and very damaging to the concept of the European regime and project.
Last and by no means least, we come to Brexit. It has been a topic of conversation all the time and it will remain as a topic for some time yet. In the short few months ahead, the issue will develop to a greater or lesser extent, or else it will not develop at all. We have a meaningful role to play within the European Union, as Ministers have, along with the Opposition over recent years. That meaningful role within the Union has been about bringing people together to establish common ground and objectives, with less reliance on emerging nationalism, which is the enemy of the European Union. I will conclude with a point I made in response to the previous submission. If there is a discussion on a loosening of the rules in the European project, it will be the beginning of the end for the Union.
The first brick in the wall that removes member states' responsibility or allows member states to proceed of their own accord will be the beginning of the end of the European Union. People across the European Union need to examine that carefully and ask whether we should go here and whether we have been there previously and, if so, what were the results and costs of our previous visit to that particular pedestal. The evidence is clearly there for everybody. My party strongly supports the lines being taken by the 27 member states and we hope the UK will find its way back into the European Union at a later stage.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, and thank her for her ongoing efforts and hard work on behalf of the country at European level dealing with all of this subject matter. Like Deputy Durkan, I welcome the proposed enlargement of the European Union, which would be confined to North Macedonia and Albania. Is it correct that Albania is a member of NATO? By what name was North Macedonia known previously?
I welcome the proposed enlargement in any case.
I will say a few words on Brexit. The Minister of State portrayed the Commissioner, Mr. Hogan, in a good light. I agree with her and it is generally accepted, not only in Ireland but throughout Europe, that he has been an excellent Commissioner. Please God, he has been mentioned for promotion under the new arrangements. I will understand if the Minister of State is unable to comment on that. I wish the Commissioner well.
Brexit is a very fluid situation. Ireland must be concerned about the future of the 80% of our exports to continental Europe which go through the British landbridge. The Minister of State might comment on that. I would be very worried about that in the event of a no-deal Brexit. If I read the position correctly, with Mr. Raab pulling back and given the comments made by the UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mr. Hunt, the balance seems to be edging towards excluding a no-deal Brexit, which is very good from our point of view. The Labour Party wants a customs union or as near as possible to what we have at present. Whatever one might think of Mr. Corbyn, the balance of the party is right. There is also a welcome sign that the Speaker, Mr. Bercow, has now come out strongly in favour of parliament having its view. My reading of Mr. Bercow and his comments today is that he very much upholds what parliament has already decided in excluding a no deal. While he cannot make that decision, he has had his voice heard and seems to be a tough Speaker in that regard. I would welcome the Minister of State's comments on those matters. I hope I am reading the position correctly. Hopefully, the ball has turned a little in our favour. Maybe it was not going against us but I am reading the signals as being a little more hopeful than they were some days ago.
I welcome the Minister of State to the committee. Her contributions are always very informative.
We were concerned that the European Parliament elections would have a scattergun outcome with moves to the far right and left but they seem to have converged towards the centre. I do not see a great threat to the European ideal emerging from the incoming Parliament.
My colleagues mentioned the Commission and the Commissioner, Mr. Phil Hogan. I am told I look like the Commissioner and it would be easy to slot me into his job if the Taoiseach was of a mind to do so. On a serious note, I attended one of the citizens' dialogue sessions and I compliment the Minister of State, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, on a really good job of engaging people around the country. That is what is needed to revitalise the European ideal among the people.
I am a little disappointed that the Minister of State adverted to our desire to become leaders in climate change. In the previous session, we were talking about a trip I made to Saxony last week with the German-Irish Chamber of Commerce. As the Minister of State will be aware from travelling throughout Europe, the amount of wind energy being generated on mainland Europe is astounding. It does not seem to cause any great problem to planners or anybody else. In this country, we must come to terms with whether the environment or the landscape is more important. People will criticise me for that statement but climate change is now the greatest threat to all of us.
Unlike my colleagues, I am not exactly embracing enlargement right now. I have concerns about the western Balkans. Tensions still exist there. I favour enlargement provided all those who are playing in this game realise that the European ideal is not a peacekeeping organisation and countries come to the European project having made their peace with everybody and ready to move forward and leave the past behind. Albania and North Macedonia are not really a problem, but there are other states in that region which still have difficulties in this regard. I would be interested in an update on the position in respect of Georgia.
It seems that every potential leader of the Conservative Party is in favour of reopening the withdrawal agreement. I sincerely hope that is not the case. The alternative, for which we must prepare, is that there will be a crash-out Brexit. If there is no further negotiation and clarification, the UK will crash out of the European Union. We will need serious support from the EU should that rise and I note the Minister of State and the Tánaiste have been working hard on that.
On the issue of the Border, we keep talking about our ports and saying we will have customs officials and everything else on our ports. On the day after the referendum in the UK I said the Border would be a problem. I am still unsure as to what preparations we have made to ensure the integrity of the Border. A few in this room will recall the difficulty we had in closing the Border in 2001 when the foot and mouth disease scare occurred. We closed it but it took customs, the then Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, An Garda Síochána and the Army to do so. I can see no way that the Border can remain open. By the way, I do not subscribe to this nonsense of a Border poll either. We are not ready for that.
I would be interested in whatever plans the Government has in place in that regard.
The Minister of State, the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach have done a great deal in getting Ireland ready for Brexit. I should not leave out our officials both nationally and internationally who have been incredible in the work they have done. I am blown away by what I see as I travel throughout Europe.
An issue that came up the other day is that we have now opened the sea bridge and there are ferries going directly to France. I would hope to see ferries going directly to Germany, the Hook of Holland or somewhere like that. I heard a chap on the radio the other day who produces flowers for export to the Netherlands, of all places. The sea bridge is too long for his produce but the landbridge will not be shorter because we hear there will be 9 km tailbacks at the various ports. We will not be able to offer such small producers anything. They do not have enough produce to fill a truck. I am concerned for them. What supports will be put in place for them? It is not all about beef, lamb and chicken. There are people producing other perishable goods who will need significant supports to remain in business. As the guy who grows flowers was saying, he produces so many flowers that his operation is too big for this market on its own, there will be no market in the UK and by the time the produce gets to mainland Europe, it will be of very little value because it will have gone over its timeline. While the sea bridge will support big producers, how will we deal with the small guys?
I thank the Chairman and all the members for their questions and comments. I will touch first on the issue of the beef fund from the Commission.
Everybody here will agree it is most important that the money gets to those who need it most and is not diluted by administration. The people seeking these funds are those who have already been negatively affected by the uncertainty caused by Brexit. This money needs to get to those who have already lost revenue. As the criteria have not yet been set out fully or published, we need to wait to see what they will look like. I know those who have been working to advocate for this, including the IFA, have been emphasising that this money needs to get to those who need it. We need to wait to see what the criteria will be. I hope we will have that sooner rather than later.
Deputy Durkan referred to the Single Market. When we talk about the strategic agenda for the next few years, the biggest aspect is that it is not all about new priorities or new areas, it is about completing the commitments we have already made and the work that is already ongoing. The Single Market is approximately 80% complete in the area of goods, but the digital market is just 30% complete. When it comes to services, which comprise a significant part of our export economy, the figure is somewhere in between. There is substantial work to do. We need to ensure that everybody benefits from the completion and digitisation of the Single Market.
Deputy Durkan and Senators Coghlan and Craughwell raised the issue of enlargement. When this matter came up at last June's European Council meeting, it was decided not to open the accession process for North Macedonia and Albania. Having travelled to those countries this year, I am aware that a great deal of work has been done there. We have to remind ourselves that opening the accession process does not mean they become member states. It is a lengthy process. It takes a number of years for countries to become member states after that process has been completed. There has to be give and take. When progress has been made and work has been done, we need to be able to show support and solidarity as well. I understand that other member states have particular difficulties and challenges. We will discuss this matter and lend our support to it at next month's meeting of the General Affairs Council. Georgia is a member of the Eastern Partnership, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. It is not looking to join the EU and is not part of the accession process at the moment. As in the instances of Turkey and other countries, these conversations are continuing to remain there without moving anywhere.
There is a huge amount of work to do on climate. We have said we want to become leaders in this regard. We know we are falling behind at the same time. The next targets are not going to be targets we can reach. That is why we are focusing on our 2030 targets, which involve a reduction of 40%. We understand that we have significant challenges in light of the fact that 33% of our emissions come from our largest indigenous sector. We need to work with that sector. As many people stated, we should not engage in the "climate-shaming" of certain industries and sectors. We need to make sure our approach is affordable, equitable and technically feasible. It must be something people are on board with as well. Some of the biggest challenges we have faced in recent years with regard to wind, solar or other proposals have involved ensuring communities are on board. The way we have planned the layout of our country means that houses and other things are situated in areas that make this a much more complex and difficult matter than is the case in other countries where there may be thousands of acres without a house or community in sight. We have to take each country based on its geography, population and concerns and try to apply this. We are focusing on that. We are working with the Commission on a longer-term strategy. This has been discussed a number of times. At a significant summit that will take place in New York in September, we will focus on young people and on how climate change initiatives can be implemented. We are trying to be as active as we can with our European and international partners. We have been active at home by declaring a climate emergency, by doing our cross-committee work and by drawing up the cross-departmental plan that the Minister, Deputy Bruton, hopes to implement soon.
I was also asked about the overall structure of the next Commission and the next European Parliament. The positions are being discussed. The initial conversation took place last night. We want to ensure smaller member states are represented and there is a good balance between male and female representation.
I cannot speak at this time about what will happen with current Commissioners. That will be discussed. The timeline provides that an initial proposal should be made by June. I do not know whether that will happen. That is the timeline which has been set out.
Even though the UK Parliament has voted to avoid a no-deal Brexit, that does prevent it from happening. The only thing that can prevent it from happening is for the UK authorities to put forward a measure, a plan and a timeline for what they want to do next. Obviously, the EU will be there to work with the UK, regardless of who assumes the role of Prime Minister later in the year.
Absolutely, but without a request for an extension to the current arrangement, or something else being put in its place, a no-deal Brexit will not necessarily be prevented from happening. We need to focus on trying to avoid that situation. At the same time, we have to wait to see what the UK will bring forward. It will probably be September before that happens because it will take a period of time - most likely up until the end of July - for a new Prime Minister to be elected. It is possible that discussions will not resume until September.
Senator Craughwell asked about Brexit preparedness. A meeting of the Brexit stakeholder forum took place this morning. Such meetings have taken place on a regular basis for the past two years. It is heartening to hear that in certain sectors, there is a level of preparedness of between 80% and 90%. It is very difficult for sectors of industry to prepare fully without knowing what the future relationship will be. The issue of transportation and haulage across the landbridge continues to be raised. Some larger companies in certain sectors of industry have already been able to change direction away from the landbridge. It is likely that they will not go back to the landbridge even if things change and a softer Brexit is agreed. Such a change is possible with larger companies, although not necessarily with smaller companies. We are acutely aware of this issue, particularly given that some sailings are 20, 40 or 60 hours. Such sailings will not be able to support the transportation of fresh flowers, particular types of fruit and vegetables and other produce. We are very aware of that. We do not know what type of future relationship there will be, what the landbridge will look like and what kinds of timelines through the UK we are talking about. We can prepare as much as possible, but it is very difficult. We are asking businesses and individuals to look at seven key steps for getting ready. Much of this work does not involve a cost, which is extremely important. It is not being discussed as much as it was a few months ago, but I encourage everybody to try to engage with it as much as they can in their own constituencies and counties to make sure people still have it on their agenda.
I was also asked about the overall position following last week's elections. We are looking at a different composition across the leading groups - the European People's Party and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats - because they have come down in numbers. With regard to our own position here, I wish all of our new MEPs every success. According to the most recent survey, which was carried out by European Movement Ireland and Red C, our overall support for the EU increased last year from 92% to 93% and support for the EU among young people between the ages of 18 and 26 increased from 96% to 97%. This continuing strong support was reflected in the elections that took place last week. We will do our best to ensure it is reflected in our contributions in the European Parliament, at the General Affairs Council and at the Foreign Affairs Council.
It seems to me, based on my engagement with colleagues at the General Affairs Council and elsewhere, that there is no appetite for the reopening of the withdrawal agreement. In terms of the Border, we need to be clear that we will not be dragged or taken out of the Single Market or the customs union with the UK if it goes. We need to ensure that does not happen. We need to protect the Single Market and the customs union without putting in place a border between the North and the South. That is very complex and difficult. It will not be good overall in terms of our economy. We are working intensively with the Commission on this. Before the previous deadline, the Commission travelled to Ireland, in the same way that it travelled to other member states, to discuss a number of things. We will continue to engage with it in this regard.
Would the landbridge not make it possible for us to have our own dedicated line so that we do not have to get caught up in this? Unlike Britain, we will still be part of Europe.
I suggest that we have our own dedicated line getting on to ships so that we do not have to go through what Britain might have to go through, documentation wise and all the rest.
I sincerely thank the Minister of State for being here today. Our discussion has been informative as always. We appreciate the fact that she always takes the time to come here. I know she has an awful lot on her plate but these meetings ensure that we keep up a strong dialogue. She is our main conduit to Government and to what is happening so we appreciate her very much. I thank here again for being here.
I propose that we suspend the meeting for a few minutes to allow the Minister of State to leave the room. I also suggest that we take a photo with her outside the room, if that is okay. When we return, the meeting will go into private session.