Thursday, 17 December 2020
Brexit Readiness for the End of the Transition Period: Statements
As we find ourselves just two weeks away from a comprehensive and permanent change in the relationship between the EU and the UK, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this last sitting of the Dáil before Christmas. I promised to keep Members updated on Brexit developments and I think I have kept my word. This is the 18th session of statements on Brexit that I have taken in the Dáil or the Seanad since mid-2017. In that period, the Government has also answered more than 3,000 Brexit-related parliamentary questions and I have chaired over 20 meetings of the Brexit stakeholder forum, which many of the Members of this House have also attended.
My colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Thomas Byrne, will give the House a detailed update on where matters currently stand on future relationship negotiations, but we believe that, with political will, there is now a path to a deal and welcome that the negotiating teams continue to make every effort to that end. Fishing now remains the most difficult issue to resolve. I hope the existing gaps can be closed through realism and a sense of fairness on both sides.
Before turning to consider the state of readiness, I will briefly touch on the implementation of the withdrawal agreement and the Ireland and Northern Ireland protocol. I pay tribute to the work of Maroš Šefcovic, Vice-President of the European Commission for Interinstitutional Relations, and Michael Gove, MP, and their teams. The questions that arose in the context of implementing the protocol were complex and politically sensitive, with significant implications for Ireland, North and South. Following intensive engagement, the EU and UK have reached agreement on all issues relating to the protocol.
Earlier today, the joint committee on the implementation of the withdrawal agreement met to agree a number of decisions about the operation of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. The decisions taken address important issues, including the definition of goods deemed not to be at risk of entering the Single Market, the practical arrangements regarding the EU's presence in Northern Ireland when UK authorities implement checks and controls under the protocol and the exemption of some agricultural and fish subsidies from state aid rules. This clear and agreed approach has delivered stable solutions on a range of issues, including arrangements to protect the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland, to give supermarkets time to adjust and ensure supply chain resilience and to minimise the level of checks needed where these are necessary. These assurances are of enormous importance to Northern Ireland traders, whether they are operating North-South or east-west.
It is also important to reiterate that, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, hopefully in the coming days, the protocol means that the new customs and regulatory controls coming into force for east-west trade will not apply to trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland. This is a significant achievement, reflecting a key priority set by the Irish Government at the outset of the Brexit negotiations. It is a positive outcome for Ireland, North and South.
It is now more than four years since the UK voted to leave the EU and the Government began in earnest to prepare for the changes coming our way. Over this time, our approach has been agile and adaptive, depending on where the negotiations were heading. We have reviewed and refined our work as the changing circumstances required. In May this year, as it became clear that the transition period would not be extended, the Government intensified its readiness work to prepare for a very limited deal or, indeed, no deal at all. We set all of the relevant issues out in September's Brexit readiness action plan. This is a valuable source of information and support for citizens and businesses. With a weather eye to what is ahead, budget 2021 allocates unprecedented resources to confronting the twin challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit. Some €340 million is allocated in the budget for Brexit-related supports. The Government will also establish a €3.4 billion recovery fund to stimulate increased domestic demand and employment in response to Covid-19 and Brexit.
Brexit brings many changes, but the most immediate and challenging arise from the UK leaving the Single Market and customs union. In simple terms, this means that the seamless trade we enjoy with the UK today will end in two weeks' time. All businesses, big and small, will be affected and if they do not prepare now, their trade will be disrupted, deliveries will be delayed and customers will be lost.
My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, will give more detail on our stakeholder engagement and on the significant work that has gone into ensuring our ports and airports are as ready as they possibly can be. We have engaged intensively with stakeholders, provided supports and will continue to work with all businesses and stakeholders in the remaining weeks and post transition. However, I am concerned that many businesses, particularly in the SME sector, are not fully prepared. I cannot stress enough that there is no outcome of the talks that will stop the introduction of new customs and regulatory regimes.
The issue is not under negotiation as the UK has decided its best interests lie outside the Single Market and customs union.
If the EU and UK fail to reach a deal, a broader set of challenges arises. These challenges include tariffs and quotas and the loss of access for Irish fishing boats to UK waters. Furthermore, the absence of a data adequacy decision would impact every public authority and business that exchanges data with the UK.
Plans to manage issues that arise in the immediate day-one, week-one period and beyond are being finalised. Revenue, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the HSE will have 24-hour operations in Dublin Port. A range of call centres and advice lines will be available to traders and citizens. Our embassies abroad will be monitoring developments across the EU and UK. The senior officials group on Brexit readiness will meet throughout the period and will provide central oversight and co-ordination of these operations.
The Government has done its homework and is as prepared as we can be. However, even with all the work undertaken by Government, business and citizens will face major disruption. That is being honest. It is simply not possible to mitigate against every Brexit risk. There is no silver bullet that solves all problems. A number of the changes will be outside of our control. We need to recognise this reality and do what we can to adapt and react when these changes occur. Some changes will be obvious to consumers, for example, the increased cost of meeting the new requirements may lead to certain companies deciding to no longer service the Irish market. While our shelves will not be empty, of course, it is possible some of our favourite brands may no longer be available.
Additionally, there remains a lack or clarity in respect of elements of the UK's preparations, which impacts on our ability to finalise our own planning. Even before Brexit, we were seeing delays in Dover and Calais. We anticipate there will be delays and potential disruption in Irish ports as operators adjust to the new systems of checks.
We have no intention of undertaking unnecessary checks or delaying goods for no reason. Our approach at our ports has the twin aim of ensuring trade can flow to the greatest extent possible while maintaining food safety standards, public health and our obligations to the Single Market.
We all understand the importance of the Single Market to Ireland's economy. It is the mechanism by which our goods move freely without customs formalities and regulatory checks and why we have seamless access to a market of 450 million people. In return for this access, we have an obligation to protect the integrity of the Single Market we belong to. We will do everything possible to minimise delays but everyone has to play his or her part. I look forward to hearing the views of Members and responding at the end of the statements.