Thursday, 17 December 2020
Brexit Readiness for the End of the Transition Period: Statements
I thank the Minister for his ongoing hugely positive role in this process, his leadership in the Department of Foreign Affairs and his excellence as a colleague. I appreciate that and that extends across this House on Brexit. There has always been a shared understanding across the Oireachtas of what the UK's decision to leave really means. From the broad political consequences to the specifics of technical policy areas, the unity of purpose in both Houses has been a hallmark of Ireland's approach to Brexit.
Make no mistake, our European colleagues have seen that the Irish have their act together on Brexit and, in return, have shown us tremendous solidarity. While the Minister was speaking, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, issued a statement following her conversation with Boris Johnson and it is no different from what the Minister and I were discussing only an hour ago, that substantial progress has been made but big differences remain, particularly on fisheries. The Commission President said that bridging them will be very challenging and that the negotiations will continue tomorrow, which we welcome. It is important and in everybody's interest that a deal be achieved and work continue strongly.
This unity in the Oireachtas to which I referred was evident last week as the Brexit omnibus Act passed through the Houses, with the exception of one provision, which did not directly relate to the issue of Brexit. It was clear all sides supported the legislation. President Higgins signed the Bill into law on 10 December and the Minister, Deputy Coveney, commenced Part 1 yesterday. This paves the way for other sections to be commenced in the coming days.
Dáil Éireann has followed every step of the negotiating process on the future relationship since the talks began nine months ago. Deadlines have come and gone but there has never been any doubt that our negotiating team - and Michel Barnier is our negotiator - would strive with every fibre of their being for a positive outcome. Michel Barnier is our good friend. He has an incredible insight into Ireland going back a long time in his role as minister for agriculture in France and as a European Commissioner, with his special role on this island. Thousands of hours of hard, patient work continue to be done by our negotiators. The talks have never been about one side winning or losing or about gaining the upper hand, but about creating a new and stable framework for EU-UK co-operation to continue, even as the nature of our relationship changes.
On 16 December, President von der Leyen, addressing the European Parliament, noted that while we have found a way forward on most issues, gaps remain on the level playing field and fisheries. We see her up-to-date statement this evening. They are vital issues, crucial to our country and without which agreement cannot be reached. This House knows the Government's position is that there must be a workable outcome for fishers that does as much as possible to protect our coastal communities.
We do not yet know whether there will be a deal. I can assure the House there is no choreography. This is reality. It is hard and the gaps are difficult to bridge. Progress has been made on issues, though, and talks continue. There could be a narrow path to agreement, as the President of the Commission said. Political will on both sides is necessary and the coming days are decisive. We have been saying that for a long time but it is clearly the case with Christmas and 31 December approaching.
As the Minister said, even with a deal, the consequences for our country will be significant. Pretty much every change we are preparing for and for which we have asked businesses to prepare - which most have - will transpire deal or no deal.
Joint analysis by the Department of Finance and the ESRI indicates that over the medium term, Ireland's level of GDP is expected to be between 1.9% and 3.3% lower, compared to a situation where the UK remained in the EU. That is a frightening statistic. Underneath that, there are sectors and regions of this country, with agrifood, fisheries, manufacturing and retail the most exposed.
Supporting businesses to prepare for this change has been a priority of our Brexit preparations. A sustained and intensive communications and stakeholder outreach programme remains central to this work. Countrywide, people will have come across our Brexit ads on the radio - bhí an-áthas orm iad a fheiceáil i nGaeilge freisin - on television, in newspapers and in social media feeds. Since September alone, between myself, the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Coveney, we have discussed Brexit at more than 100 events, to say nothing of the countless engagements and seminars delivered by our officials, who I thank for their incredible work, and by the teams of officials across Departments who will be watching any deal that comes out over the days before and after Christmas, at much expense to their families, it must be said and acknowledged, but to the great benefit of our county. This work will continue. If there is a deal in place, we will continue to engage with business to explain the deal and get businesses ready that are not ready. In a no-deal situation, even more work will be required.
Our Revenue Commissioners have written to more than 90,000 businesses that have traded with the UK since 2019 and followed up with direct phone contact with 14,000 businesses. The Tánaiste wrote to all 225,000 companies registered in Ireland with advice on preparing for the end of the transition period. All Departments and agencies have advisory resources available. In the absence of large gatherings, we have made great use of virtual platforms and webinars to connect with our stakeholders.
The Brexit omnibus Act provides for postponed accounting of VAT. We introduced the ready for customs grant to help companies prepare for new customs requirements. Up to €9,000 is available per eligible employee placed in a customs role. To date, more than €5.4 million in funding has been provided. In addition, more than 2,000 businesses have registered for the Clear Customs Online training programme, 1,070 approvals have been made under the local enterprise offices' technical assistance for micro exporters grant and InterTradeIreland has approved 2,495 Brexit planning vouchers.
The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has highlighted the detailed work that has taken place across all key sectors to get ready for 1 January. I would like to focus on our deal and on no-deal preparations at ports and airports. These are the vital gateways to our trade with the EU and the UK and we have invested significantly to make sure they are ready for the demands that will come with the end of the transition period.
The State has taken steps to ensure we can manage the introduction of the new checks and controls and keep trade flowing. We have significantly expanded the State's facilities at Dublin Airport, Dublin Port and Rosslare. In Dublin Port alone, we have completed 140,000 sq. m of building works involving 500,000 person hours. These facilities include new inspection bays, import and export facilities and more than 300 parking spaces for heavy goods vehicles, HGVs. I have visited these facilities and tip my hat to our officials, who are working hard to get everything ready. We have also greatly enhanced the capacity of customs and other ICT systems to manage the new processes, including the expected increase in annual import and export declarations from approximately 1.6 million per annum to in excess of 20 million per annum next year. That is an extraordinary statistic. Provision has been made to deploy some 1,500 staff to support and carry out the increased customs, sanitary and phytosanitary, and food safety checks and controls. A comprehensive programme of testing is under way and involves key agencies and port users. Testing at Dublin Port and Rosslare Europort last year involved 38 HGVs across both locations. We also recently published traffic management plans for Dublin Port and Dublin more widely. These plans are publicly available and it is worth repeating that there is a wealth of information on www.gov.ie/brexit.
While we have secured flexibilities at EU level for goods moving across the UK land bridge, I have highlighted many times how the route will become more complicated. The increase in direct ferry services is welcome and we would welcome even more. It is clear that a number of traders and operators are beginning to look at this option. Indeed, some substantial traders have abandoned the land bridge. I would urge anyone for whom a direct ferry is an option to trial it as soon as possible because we are coming to the end of the year.
We are all aware that the coming changes present challenges, but it is important to remember that we do not face them alone. The European Commission has published details of the EU-level contingency measures that will come on stream if no agreement is reached. While they are significantly less than the status quo, they will keep the planes flying and road freight flowing in the first half of next year. As a consequence of Brexit, the Commission was required to introduce these contingency measures. This was not an imaginary problem, but a real one that had to be solved. I look forward to seeing more detail on the allocation under the EU's €5 billion Brexit adjustment reserve, which is an important fund.
Deputies have consistently engaged on these important matters and I look forward to hearing their views. I thank them most sincerely for continuing the tradition that obtained in the previous Dáil of supporting the Government on Brexit, engaging with us, challenging or providing ideas when necessary, distributing information and encouraging our businesses and consumers to get ready.