Thursday, 11 July 2019
Brexit Contingency Action Plan: Statements
Helen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
As the Tánaiste outlined and has been reflected in Deputies’ contributions, Brexit represents a unique and unprecedented challenge for Ireland. As Deputy Shortall outlined, significant uncertainty remains. The political uncertainty in London means that there is a significant risk of a no-deal Brexit. It is not certain that the United Kingdom will seek a further extension or that the European Union will grant it if it does. It is in that context that the Government continues to prioritise preparations for a possible no-deal Brexit.
The Brexit contingency action plan update reflects the work that has taken place across government to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, as well as the further steps that will be taken between now and 31 October. I disagree with any assertation that the document is not useful and that there is no reason for it to be published now. While some understand and know what has been done, many do not. For example, two weeks ago I met an old neighbour from Scotland who wanted to know about arrangements for the common travel area and how they could impact on him and his family. It is important to stress the work we have done and outline what our plans are in the next 122 days in anticipation of a possible no-deal scenario. We cannot replace the seamless arrangements in place today with mitigation measures. The mitigation measures will reduce some of the impacts. There will, however, be a fundamental change in the relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom. We want to continue to have a close relationship.
The Government has been clear on its objectives since the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union, namely, protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process, including protecting the all-island economy and avoiding the emergence of a hard border on the island of Ireland. These objectives are delivered by the withdrawal agreement. Given the UK red lines, the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, is the only solution on the table which delivers the outcomes everyone, including the United Kingdom, is committed to achieving. In the absence of the withdrawal agreement, there are no easy solutions. As the action plan states, we should be under no illusion that a no-deal Brexit would result in far-reaching change on the island of Ireland. It would disrupt the flow of the all-island economy.
The Government is working closely with the European Commission to meet the shared twin objectives of protecting the Single Market and Ireland’s place in it, while avoiding a hard border, including physical infrastructure. This work is looking at necessary checks to preserve Ireland’s full participation in the Single Market and the customs union. As the Taoiseach indicated, tariffs, for example, could be paid online. However, other areas such as sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, checks are far more challenging. Any solution agreed to will be far from suboptimal to the backstop and highly disruptive to the all-island economy.
In the time between now and 31 October the action plan emphasises the need for stepped up preparedness measures by exposed businesses, in particular. This is not a matter of urban versus rural. I come from County Meath which has a mix of both, with strong small and medium-sized enterprises in the agrifood and drinks, agritourism and tourism sectors. It is about protecting all of them. Citizens and businesses cannot assume that because a no-deal Brexit was averted in March and April the same will happen in October. The need for prudent preparations is more pressing than ever.
A new phase of the Government’s Brexit communications, including an intensified engagement programme by Revenue, will focus on individual businesses. It will include targeted letters and follow-up phone calls. We need to ensure those businesses which have not registered to trade with the United Kingdom will do so. That is why they will receive a third letter and a phone call. We are supporting them in every way we can, but we cannot register all businesses. It is important that these messages get across. That is another reason the document was published this week.
Seminars offering advice and support for companies organised by Departments and State agencies will continue to take place nationwide. There have been over 2,500 engagements with stakeholders. I attended an event on 5 March with Freight Transport Association Ireland. The Government has engaged with the customs consultative committee, with a view to identifying a series of targeted measures which will be taken to support and incentivise capacity building in the customs intermediary sector.
The Government has put in place a range of supports for the agrifood industry, including a €78 million Brexit package for farmers, fishermen, food SMEs and to cover additional costs related to Brexit; the future growth loan scheme via the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland for farmers, the seafood sector and food SMEs; specific supports for food businesses through Enterprise Ireland and the LEADER food programme; technology and innovation hubs; additional funding for Bord Bia; trade missions and market access activity. Recently the European Commission announced a €50 million exceptional aid fund for the beef sector to address price difficulties caused in part by the ongoing uncertainty about Brexit. The Minister is meeting the respective bodies today to discuss the fund.
The Government will continue to engage constructively with the European Commission to explore the full range of state aid flexibilities and supports for sectors in the event that there is a no-deal Brexit. Ireland will work with the European Union and fellow member states to identify options for the fishing industry from 2020 onwards, including a common framework to manage the potential tying-up of boats, the possible displacement into EU waters under the control of Ireland of fleets from other member states, as well as funding for the sector. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine will continue to engage with relevant traders to ensure they are registered on the EU trade control and export system, TRACES.
As detailed in the plan, sufficient infrastructure is in place at Dublin Port, Rosslare Europort and Dublin Airport to provide an emergency response to a no-deal Brexit. In the coming months we will be refining and improving this infrastructure. At Dublin Port a 6,000 sq. m warehouse has been converted to accommodate facilities, including 13 inspection bays for SPS and food safety checks. Plans for a further 18 inspection bays are in place.
Additional staff have been trained and are in place to respond to a no-deal Brexit. Revenue has hired 400, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, 190, and the HSE, 59. Further staff will be made available before 31 October.
The United Kingdom’s accession to the Common Transit Convention, CTC, post Brexit will facilitate its use as a landbridge. This is a crucial route for Irish trade, with 150,000 trucks, carrying 3 million tonnes of trade worth €21 billion, using this route to mainland Europe each year. We are working with the European Union and fellow member states, particularly France, to facilitate the best possible use of the landbridge after Brexit. We anticipate that there could be delays and need to look beyond this. Should there be significant difficulties in that regard, the Dover-Calais crossing has been identified as a particular bottleneck. There is capacity on our direct sea routes to mainland Europe. Irish Ferries MV W.B. Yeats which entered into service in January provides capacity for 60,600 HGVs per annum. Another vessel of similar size is due to be delivered on Irish Sea routes in 2020. In 2018 CLdN launched the MV Celine, the world’s largest roll-on/roll-off vessel. In 2019 it launched MV Laureline, significantly increasing capacity on the Dublin-Rotterdam and Zeebrugge routes. In May 2018 Brittany Ferries launched a direct route from Cork to Santander. BG Freight Line will commence a Waterford-Rotterdam weekly freight service in July. All of this shows the continuing work on preparations.
The Government remains firmly of the view that the best and realistic way to ensure an orderly Brexit is for the United Kingdom to ratify the withdrawal agreement agreed with the European Union. Our position has been clear and consistent. A change of UK Prime Minister will not change the facts of Brexit. The European Council has made it consistently clear that the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, cannot be opened or renegotiated. That said, the Government’s view is that there is still a significant risk of a no-deal Brexit. That is why contingency planning continues and has the highest priority across all Departments. We should be under no illusion that a no-deal Brexit would result in far-reaching change on the island of Ireland. We are doing everything in our power to protect every single citizen. It is only by the Government, business and citizens working together nationally and with our EU partners that we can aim to mitigate as far as possible the impacts of a no-deal Brexit, as well as ensuring we will be as prepared as we can be for the changes it will bring. We will continue this work as a strong and committed EU member state and with the solidarity and support of our EU partners, in which there has never been a chink. There has only been full solidarity from our EU colleagues.
On Deputy Adams’s question about direct rule, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, other Ministers and I have always said we would never accept it.