Wednesday, 30 January 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I am pleased the Minister, Deputy Creed, is in the Chamber because many of the issues I will be raising are technical and only he will fully understand them. There is serious concern in the fisheries sector among processors, producers, exporters and those involved in ancillary services regarding the Department's plans post 29 March 2019. It will be said that this is hypothetical, but we are only two months from that date. I am sure plans are in place, particularly in light of the votes in Westminster last night. We do not want this situation and I know the Minister does not want it. We would have preferred if the deal on offer had been accepted but we must live in the real world. I would like to know what is involved in regard to the proposed amendment of EU Regulation 508/2014, which provides for the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund. I am opposed, and I hope the Minister is too, to the transfer of capital from this fund to provide for emergency funding. There is not sufficient funds there to do that. Any funds for emergency should be additional funding.
I welcome the proposal for a regulation amending EU Regulation 2017/2403 of the European Parliament and of the Council, which makes provision for vessels fishing in UK waters. Has the Minister had discussions with his EU counterparts or his UK counterpart on these proposals? While the proposal is welcome, the arrangement has to be reciprocal. In addition, the producers are uncertain about what will happen after 29 March. I understand emergency measures will be put in place to allow for continuity until the end of this year. Can the Minister confirm that this was agreed at the December Agriculture and Fisheries Council on TACs and quotas? There is so much fear around Brexit. The Minister will shortly be allocating 100% of the mackerel quota to the vessels. I do not know if that is a good sign or not because the allocation is normally 80% or 85%. My fear is that unless there is clarity, this will be front-loaded and that is not good management. It is better if the catching sector can land over a longer period and thus ensure greater prices. Front-loading is worrying. There has to be clarity and I hope the Minister can provide it today and also set out what other plans are in place in the event of a crash on 29 March?
On the Brexit contingency action plan, which was launched on 19 December, as far as I can see there is no reference in it to fisheries. This sends out the wrong signal. It is no wonder the sector is edgy about the preparations and state of readiness on the part of the Government. I await the Minister's response in this regard and would welcome his views on the provision of emergency funding other than through extraction from the EMFF because that funding is required for other measures. To do that would be only a cosmetic exercise by the European Commission.
I thank Deputy Gallagher for raising this issue. The Government remains firmly of the view that the only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal is to ratify the withdrawal agreement as endorsed by the European Council and agreed with the British Government. The European Council has made clear that it stands by the withdrawal agreement and that it is not for renegotiation.
In light of ongoing uncertainty in the UK, however, we are continuing work to prepare for all possible outcomes, including the worst-case scenario of a disorderly Brexit. We have already introduced a range of measures to deal with the short-term impacts of Brexit through a €150 million low-cost loan scheme and increased funding under the rural development and seafood development programmes in 2017, along with a new €300 million Brexit loan scheme in 2018 for Irish businesses that are either currently impacted by Brexit or will be in the future, at least 40% of which will be available to the seafood and agrifood sectors.
Budget 2019 contains a €78 million Brexit package for farmers, fishermen and food SMEs. Our enterprise agencies are continuing to work with seafood companies to help them to deal with Brexit through making them more competitive, diversifying market exposure and upskilling teams. Specifically on fisheries, my priority has been, and remains, to maintain existing levels of access to waters and resources to provide continuity and certainty to our catching and processing sectors. However, in a worst-case scenario of a disorderly departure in March 2019 those reciprocal arrangements could be endangered. I continue to have positive, regular meetings with my European colleagues, especially those from the group of eight member states whose fisheries sectors are potentially most impacted by the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union. I am also working closely with key stakeholders in the Irish fishing industry and I am pleased at the level of unity on these key issues.
In recent days, the Commission has adopted two legislative proposals to help prepare for the potential significant impacts that a no-deal Brexit would have on Irish fisheries. The first proposal is to allow fishermen and operators from European Union members states to receive financial aid under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, EMFF, for the temporary cessation of fishing activities. The aim of this is to help off-set some of the impact of a sudden closure of UK waters to EU fishing vessels in a no-deal scenario. The second proposal aims to ensure that the European Union is in a position to grant UK vessels access to European Union waters until the end of 2019, on the condition that European Union vessels are also granted reciprocal access to UK waters based on the agreement in the December Council on the fishing opportunities for 2019. The only clarity from the UK is that European Union vessels will no longer have automatic access to their zone. Whether this means a complete shut out of EU vessels or not remains uncertain at this stage. While I welcome these measures as useful first steps, additional measures, including further financing, over and above the EMFF, at EU level will be required. In this regard, I am continuing to work with the Commission and other concerned member states to continue to develop European Union-wide measures to address the very serious potential problems that may arise. It cannot be left to individual member states to address these problems in isolation. Ireland is particularly exposed with regard to the potential impacts for our fisheries sector. If there has to be a temporary cessation its use must be proportionate across all fleets. It cannot be the case that similar fleets are tied up in one member state and not in another. There must be a level playing field for all those impacted by loss of access to UK waters.
It is not possible to eliminate all risk in a no-deal situation. Any Brexit will be negative, but a no-deal Brexit is the worst possible outcome and would not be in the interests of the UK, Ireland or the European Union. That is why our focus remains on securing the deal that has been reached. Brexit will have negative consequences in all scenarios, but our key protection from whatever Brexit brings will be our status as a member of the European Union, with all the stability and solidarity that brings.
I thank the Minister. My worst fears have been realised. There is no certainty. The European Union, through the Council and the Parliament, have agreed to give UK vessels rights but there is no guarantee that we will have reciprocal rights. It is vital the Minister works with the eight like-minded countries to ensure that an emergency fund is put in place. The EMFF proposal is of no significance. It is only a paper exercise and a budget line. If the European Union is serious about this, the eight countries that are working with the Minister will require the support of the 27 countries to ensure that this funding is provided.
To give an indication of the seriousness of this, 60% of our mackerel and 40% of our nephrons are caught in UK waters. As a whole, 30% of our fish are caught in UK waters so this is vitally important.
When responding, perhaps the Minister could advise why there was no reference to fish in the Brexit contingency action plan of 19 December? Perhaps there is a reason for this but if there is not one, I would be concerned. While the Minister is taking a hands-on approach, does he have the support of the entire Cabinet given that it was not included in that plan?
I would urge the Minister to continue working with the European Commission and other member states on this a matter. The Minister said he is working with the sector but we require a forum to bring together all the interested parties over the next number of weeks and to give them an opportunity to outline to the Minister the seriousness of the problems and for him to let them know what exactly he is doing. I have not heard anyone talk about the link between fish and markets. We were told they would be inextricably linked. There has to be advantages for the UK there. Are we exploiting that?
I thank Deputy Gallagher for the supplementary questions. I assure him that we work extremely closely - hand in glove - with the industry in all its manifestations, from the catching sector to the processing sector. We are acutely conscious of the range of impacts arising from Brexit, not least the displacement from UK waters. The Deputy listed the primary stocks that will be impacted which, in value terms, is worth €85 million. The consequences of that are apparent in many areas, not least in the processing sector, but most critically in displacement and in terms of where those boats will consequently endeavour to catch fish. That is a real issue for us in the context of our capacity to deal with that in terms of our Naval Service, the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, overfishing and access via the landbridge to markets in mainland Europe. We are acutely conscious of this and we have always endeavoured, and I think we succeeded in terms of the negotiations on the withdrawal agreement, to link any future trading relationship in the context of the political declaration to continued access to UK waters. That is where the kernel of this is.
Unfortunately what the Deputy is looking for, which I cannot offer, is clarity at this stage as to all the consequences in a disorderly Brexit. We are engaged across the European Commission. Even as late as last Monday I had bilaterals with Commissioner Hogan and will be shortly meeting with Commissioner Vella directly on these matters. We have had ongoing engagement via the group of eight with Michel Barnier and all the asks of the group of eight member states, reflected also in the industry alliance, were delivered in the context of the withdrawal agreement.
That is the preferred route in terms of the UK's departure but the wisdom of Solomon would not suffice to tell us at this stage what the UK's ultimate course of action is going to be. We remain entirely focused on what is possible in the context of our engagement with our EU partners in terms of all the consequences but we have to be brutally honest about it. In the case of a hard Brexit and the UK crashing out, we avoid the desirability of a transition period and a negotiated future trading relationship wherein it was our ambition to link trade with access to UK waters. What the course of action the UK will adopt if it crashes out is unclear. It has not issued any guarantees of future access to its waters and, in that context, it is imperative that we prepare for all scenarios, including adequate financial resources and compensation from the European Commission.