Thursday, 7 May 2020
I welcome this opportunity to update Members of the House on the significant developments that have taken place over recent months in respect of Brexit, a process whose pace has not slackened in recent weeks and months, despite the unprecedented global Covid-19 crisis. The withdrawal agreement provides the basis for the immediate way ahead. It has put in place the transition period that runs to the end of this year. This means that the UK, though no longer an EU member, is treated as a member of the Single Market and customs union. It protects EU and UK citizens and businesses and provides continuity while negotiations are under way to agree the basis for a new relationship.
Through the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, it upholds measures to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and to protect the integrity of the Single Market and Ireland's place in it. This is why it is important that, over this period, we see the full implementation of the withdrawal agreement and the protocol. As Michel Barnier has said, the faithful and effective implementation of the withdrawal agreement is "absolutely central" to the progress of the negotiations. This is key to protecting citizens and to ensuring peace and stability in Northern Ireland.
For the EU, Brexit represents a substantive change in our relationship with our closest neighbour. This is especially true for Ireland. It will fundamentally affect how we co-operate and do business together across many areas. To meet this challenge, over the coming months we have three broad interrelated streams of work, which I would like to address: first, future partnership negotiations; second, implementation of the existing withdrawal agreement; and, third, readiness work for the end of transition, whatever that may bring.
EU-UK negotiations have now begun on the future relationship, with two rounds having taken place so far. The most recent was from 18 to 22 April. As with so many areas, Covid-19 has created serious challenges. The second round of negotiations was delayed and meetings were eventually held by video conference. Further rounds are scheduled for next Monday, 11 May, and 1 June. These negotiations are between the Commission task force, led by Michel Barnier on behalf of the 27 member states, and the UK, led by chief negotiator, David Frost. They address a broad range of issues across 11 "tables", from trade in goods and services to transport and energy, from law enforcement to mobility, and many other issues. They also include important cross-cutting elements on level playing field and governance which are necessary to protect fair and open competition in any future EU-UK relationship. This is especially important given the proximity and depth of the trading relationship. The deal the EU is offering the UK is unique.
It is an unprecedented and broad economic partnership with zero tariffs and zero quotas on goods entering the Single Market, which is home to 450 million people.
The EU negotiating mandate was agreed at the General Affairs Council on 25 February. It reflects the breadth and ambition on the part of the EU for a close and deep partnership with the UK, providing a generous and fair foundation on which a new EU-UK relationship can be built. Of particular importance for Ireland is that the mandate maintains a focus on protecting the Good Friday Agreement and ensuring that issues arising from Ireland's unique geographic situation are addressed, as well as the common travel area. Protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process in all circumstances continue to be key priorities for Ireland. These priorities are shared by our EU partners and are also well understood by them. However, the limited level of ambition for the future partnership on the UK side will influence what it is possible to achieve.
Ireland is working as part of the EU 27 to ensure that our collective approach to these negotiations reflects our values and interests. Ireland inputted into these discussions to ensure that our priorities were reflected in terms of a free trade agreement with strong level playing field provisions, fisheries, transport arrangements and police and judicial co-operation. The atmosphere of the talks has been relatively constructive. However, following the second round of negotiations, Michel Barnier has been clear that significant gaps remain between the two sides on a number of fundamental issues. These include a level playing field, criminal justice and law enforcement co-operation, overall governance in relation to the implementation and maintenance of any agreement and, of course, fisheries. He said that while serious difficulties lie ahead, with political will, realism and mutual respect they can be surmounted.
More progress is needed for June, when the EU and UK will jointly take stock of the negotiations, as well as the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, ahead of a high-level conference with the UK at the end of June. Michel Barnier has emphasised that clear evidence is needed that the UK is advancing work on the agreed procedures and controls needed to operationalise the protocol. I spoke with Michel Barnier on Monday in advance of further future partnership negotiations next week. The Taoiseach, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, and I remain in contact with our colleagues in other EU member states as well as with the UK.
Time is tight, even more so given the challenges Covid-19 imposes. There have been calls for an extension to the transition period, including from significant sectors in the UK. Under the withdrawal agreement, such a decision, which is one to be made jointly between the EU and the UK, must be taken by 30 June. At this stage, it is not helpful to speculate. However, the UK Government has repeatedly stated that the transition period will end on 31 December and that it will not seek an extension. As a consequence, we continue to work to be ready for that date.
Work towards the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland, has now begun. Whatever the outcome of the current negotiations, the protocol will apply from the end of transition and it is important to say this. No deal on a trade agreement at the end of transition will not be the same as no deal if it happened before a withdrawal agreement was signed up to but it would still be hugely disruptive from a trade perspective. This ensures that we will avoid a hard border on this island come what may, protect the gains of the Good Friday Agreement and safeguard the integrity of the Single Market and Ireland's place in it.
This work will be carried forward through the joint committee, which held its first meeting on 30 March, and the specialised committee, which specifically focuses on the implementation of the Irish and Northern Irish protocol and which met on 30 April. Ireland participated in both meetings as part of the EU delegation. Discussions took place in a constructive atmosphere. The specialised committee took stock of work needed regarding implementation. Both sides agreed on establishing the joint consultative working group, which will provide a forum for discussion and information exchange in the application of the protocol.
Ireland welcomes these important steps.
Full implementation of what was agreed by the EU and the UK in the withdrawal agreement and the protocol is fundamental for all EU member states. A new partnership can only be built on the full and effective implementation of the withdrawal agreement and the protocol. The Commission last week published a paper which considers some of the practical steps that will be needed in the period ahead to implement the protocol. The protocol must be operational at the end of the transition period. That is important. It is critical, therefore, that work moves forward to put practical operational arrangements in place to implement the protocol. These must be communicated to economic operators in good time so they can also prepare. Clarity on this work is particularly important to give reassurance and certainty, particularly given all of the uncertainty that is linked with Covid-19 at the same time.
As already stated, some details will be finalised in the period ahead, including through the work of the joint and specialised committees. However, the broad outline of what is necessary is already clear. In many ways, these committees are about implementation, not any form of re-negotiation. That is for sure. This must include action to back up the important commitments in the protocol on continuity of rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement. I welcome the fact that the UK has stated that it will respect all its legal undertakings under the withdrawal agreement. It reiterated this at the meetings of the joint and specialised committees. It is important to state that because it is a very significant confirmation of the intent of the British Government.
Implementation of the protocol will mean some changes, however. Northern Ireland will remain in the UK customs territory but will continue to apply the rules of the European Union customs code and relevant EU legislation. The Commission has been clear that there will be a need for checks, some of which already exist, on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain. At the same time, it is important that the implementation of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland works for Northern Ireland, and for the all-island economy as a whole, in as smooth a manner as possible. Deputies will have seen commentary on the question of an EU office in Belfast. Article 12 of the protocol provides for EU representatives to be present for activities relating to the application and implementation of the protocol. I hope, and am confident, that agreement can be reached through the specialised and joint committees on how the EU involvement envisaged in the protocol can operate in an appropriate and sensible way. The framework is there to reach agreement once the practical implementation approach of the UK is clearer, and that is the step we need to focus on now. On other specialised committees, over the coming weeks the work of the other specialised committees will also be taken forward. This includes work relating to citizens' rights, financial commitments under the withdrawal agreement, Gibraltar and the sovereign air bases in Cyprus. Ireland will be paying close attention to this work, as it impacts on our interests also.
In terms of readiness, Brexit comes at a time when businesses are already struggling in the face of the challenges brought about by Covid-19. With less than seven months to the end of transition period, we remain committed to doing everything in our power to ensure that citizens and businesses are as ready as they can be for the end of transition. The Government moved swiftly and decisively in terms of Covid-19-related supports to businesses. Brexit preparation will necessarily be part of a wider business recovery agenda and we will look at how best business supports can be deployed in the context of Brexit challenges also. However, the UK has left the EU. At the end of the transition period, the UK will leave the customs union and Single Market. Even the best possible free trade agreement between the EU and UK will impact supply chains and trade flows and result in checks and controls in both directions on EU-UK trade and across the Irish Sea. Earlier today, I hosted a meeting of the Brexit stakeholders forum which provided an opportunity to hear from business representatives on how we can assist their members in the coming months. Supporting supply chains and trade flows remains a priority. Significant investment in infrastructure and systems in our ports and airports continues.
I have discussed the UK landbridge with Michel Barnier and he understands the importance of safeguarding this important route to market, which is into the rest of the EU. The Government's preparedness work will be closely aligned with progress on the negotiations and will evolve as elements of a deal become clearer. As the talks progress, we will roll out communications programmes covering specific areas. As before, Departments and agencies will continue to meet with key stakeholders.
Until the conclusion of the transition period at the end of 2020, there will not be immediate changes for business and citizens but, make no mistake, that change is coming and we need to be ready for it. Ireland faces these changes with the mutual solidarity and support of our EU partners and with all of the strength that EU membership brings. As we progress the negotiations on EU-UK future relations, and the implementation of the protocol, managing Brexit will remain a priority for the foreseeable future. We are determined to rebuild, strengthen and re-energise relationships North-South and east-west, for the benefit of all our businesses, and all our people.
The Government will ensure that Ireland's interests are advanced during the period ahead and that intensive work continues to prepare Ireland for our post-transition relationship with the UK.
The challenges we face in the context of Covid-19 make Brexit even more complicated in some ways. It also raises the stakes even higher, if they were not high enough already. The idea that we would knowingly allow a second significant negative impact on our economy and our trading opportunities with our closest neighbour after the impact of Covid-19, which has been and will continue to be significant, by not managing to agree a sensible trading arrangement between the EU and the UK is something that will focus minds in the months ahead.
I welcome the opportunity to speak today on the issue of Brexit, an issue that dominated political discourse in 2019 and has been overshadowed in 2020 by the Covid-19 pandemic. As the Tánaiste said, Brexit has not gone away and it is far from done. The impending deadline of 1 July, the date by which the UK must decide if it wants to extend the transition period by either one or two years, has brought the issue back into sharp focus. The revised withdrawal agreement, agreed in October 2019, was in many respects only the end of the beginning. Even that is not fully resolved. Disagreements have emerged around the need for an EU office in Belfast. Fianna Fáil is concerned about the lack of progress by the UK Government in implementing the protocol on Northern Ireland and providing a detailed timetable on same. There can be no backsliding on the protocol and commitments given to avoid a hard border on this island. All the while, a deal on the future relationship needs to be agreed. The future relationship is more than just an agreement on trade in goods. Several other issues must also be considered, including fisheries, level playing field provisions, transport, energy co-operation and law enforcement. The deadline set for all of this to be agreed is the end of December 2020. However, to allow for ratification the trade agreement should be ready well ahead of the end of the transition period. This was always an ambitious if somewhat unrealistic deadline. I believe that the very most we can hope for is a bare bones agreement in that timeframe. There would be no winners if that is the case. Fianna Fáil believes an extension to the transition period is required, even more so now because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the subsequent delay to the negotiations and the fundamentally altered economic landscape.
Following the conclusion of the second round of negotiations Michel Barnier questioned the ability to achieve "an intelligent agreement that limits the shock that the UK's departure from the Single Market and Customs Union will entail."
He also noted that the United Kingdom refused to engage seriously on a number of fundamental issues and there were four areas in which progress was disappointing, namely, level playing field provisions, overall governance on the future relationship, police and judicial co-operation in criminal matters, and fisheries.
In this context, it is imprudent and short-sighted of the UK Government not to request an extension to the transition period. We are where we are, however, and while in the weeks ahead every effort must be made to reach a consensus between the EU and the UK on this issue, contingency planning must continue apace for all Brexit scenarios. Businesses in the agrifood, tourism and hospitality sectors, among others, have received a hammer blow in recent weeks because of the pandemic, and the prospect of a hard or even no-deal Brexit coming down the tracks in the months ahead is frightening. In its first quarterly bulletin of 2020, published before the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Central Bank found that even a basic free trade agreement would still imply significantly higher trade frictions than exist today and estimated that a transition to an EU-UK free trade agreement after 2020 would lower Irish output by approximately 3.5% in the long run. The Covid-19 pandemic could very well make these predictions much worse, as more than 1 million people are now relying on State support for some or all of their income. The Department of Finance expects that gross domestic product will fall by 10.5% this year and that the unemployment rate could hit 22%. A hard Brexit would be nothing short of Armageddon for the thousands of businesses already on life support.
Therefore, Ireland must continue with contingency planning and seek EU support for vulnerable sectors. We must ensure that level playing field provisions remain a central tenet of the negotiations, push for a comprehensive free trade agreement that protects the all-island economy, and ensure that the protocol on Northern Ireland is implemented in full. There is much at stake and there is no time to lose.
Táim buíoch as an deis labhairt ar cheist an Bhreatimeachta. An tseachtain seo, dúirt aire de chuid Rialtas na Breataine, Michael Gove, nach mbeidh síneadh ar bith leis an dáta 31 Nollaig i mbliana. Cuireann sé sin imní orainn i Sinn Féin mar tá a fhios againn nach bhfuil dul chun cinn maith á dhéanamh sna cainteanna.
This week the British Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, ruled out an extension to the transition period that will end on 31 December later this year, again setting Britain on a collision course with the EU and Ireland towards a no-deal Brexit. As we deal with the public health threat and the economic damage caused by the Covid-19 outbreak, the threat that a hard Brexit poses to Ireland, its people and their livelihoods has not disappeared and is very real. The timelines to negotiate a future trade deal with the British Government are becoming shorter by the day, with Michel Barnier stating at a press conference last month that never in the history of such important negotiations with any third country have we been under such time pressure, with no progress made since then. Mr. Barnier also noted the intransigence displayed by the British Government on issues such as justice, fisheries, rules and standards, undermining commitments given by both sides in the political declaration.
The Tánaiste earlier admitted that progress has not been good in the most recent round of negotiations, warning we could reach another crisis point in the negotiations. Given that we are under the terms of the withdrawal agreement, an extension of the transition period must be agreed before 1 July of this year. I am sure that earlier today the Tánaiste heard the EU Commissioner, Phil Hogan, say on national radio that there is no real sign the British are approaching the negotiations with a plan to succeed, and he is somebody involved in the negotiations along with Michel Barnier.
We need to acknowledge that we have reached a real crisis point, a fact that has been obscured by the separate crisis we face from Covid-19. I am sure the Tánaiste will address and has addressed the progress that has been made in specific areas of negotiation but can we all agree that given the unprecedented challenges we are facing from the pandemic, the intransigence of the British Government in recent negotiations and the grave threat it poses to jobs and livelihood across the island, we need to impress on our colleagues in the British Parliament and the British Prime Minister the need to seek an extension to the transition arrangements and that such an extension needs to be sought without delay? With the deadline for an extension less than two months away, this must be a priority for this Government and for our European partners. Without such an extension in place, we potentially face another cliff edge which would devastate our economy and which threatens supply chains. That would not be good at any time but given the situation we find ourselves in, it would be devastating to workers, employers and industry across the island of Ireland.
The crisis manufactured by the British Government around the establishment of an EU office in Belfast, in order to monitor and facilitate the implementation of the Irish protocol, is another example of Britain negotiating in bad faith. There was no issue with this office in the North. This dispute was generated by the British Government itself. The British Government was determined to stoke tensions where none existed, even though it supported the continuing presence of an EU office in Belfast as recently as February 2019. In a letter sent from the permanent secretary to Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the EU 14 months ago, the British Government outlined its wish for the EU to keep its office in Belfast open. The British Government's outright rejection of this office as we enter the critical window of negotiations represents a warning sign that it has no interest in facilitating the Irish protocol, which is committed to in the withdrawal agreement that was ratified by both sides. The backstop was put in place to protect the all-Ireland economy and our peace process and the actions of the British Government signal bad faith in its commitment to implementing this. We need to ensure that is not the case. I welcome the Tánaiste's reference to the commitment he has from the British Government on implementing this in full but we need to be wise to what is also happening on the sidelines, particularly in its stance on the Belfast office. As one university professor of EU and international law put it: "The Achilles' heel of the Northern Ireland protocol is that it relies on the UK to implement it." Given the bad faith displayed by the British Government and the real threat a no-deal Brexit poses to Ireland, the best course of action at this point in time is to extend the transition arrangements.
I will put questions to the Tánaiste later on about the fishing industry, an industry that is important in my constituency in Killybegs. One third of the catch is caught in what would become British waters. This will have a huge impact on jobs and the economy. We will talk about that later on.
It is understandable that during this crisis, we seem to have somewhat lost track of other threats and challenges that are coming down the line, which will also have an impact on our quality of life and on the prosperity of our country. Though it has perhaps not received the attention it should have, it is clear that the negotiations to agree an orderly departure for the United Kingdom from the European Union have somewhat run aground in recent weeks. Covid-19 has made co-operation on the protocol and future relationships even more important.
It would appear that it would be more than a little trite for me to implore the actors in these negotiations to engage in talks with renewed vigour and good faith considering the inability of parties in this Chamber to include every party in their political discussions for a new Government. The current pandemic has thrown into sharp relief how seismic changes can be visited upon us quickly and in a way we could not truly prepare for. However, Brexit is not an unknown threat and we have been grappling with it for almost four years. Similarly, the impacts that will be felt due to climate change in the next decade are also anticipated, even if they are not fully clear. Those two escalating hazards are not mutually exclusive. The UK's departure should not and cannot be employed as a free pass on agreements made through the international climate accord, the Paris Agreement. The UK exports more than €300 billion worth of goods and services to the EU and accounts for over 30% of goods and services imported into Ireland.
The manufacture of goods, the use of raw materials, the ethical employment of labour and the cradle to cradle life of these exports must be considered part of those Paris commitments and must be a building block of any economic pact between both parties. The international obligations undertaken by the United Kingdom in 2016 under the Paris Agreement should be factored into an emissions reduction pact as an essential element that underpins any trade agreement.
This week we witnessed a further worrying deterioration in relations as the EU's request to create a working office in Belfast was resisted by senior British officials. The reality is that achieving a viable and efficient framework for the movement of goods and services in an all-island manner will require an integrated and bipartisan approach. It is also worth pointing out, and I say this as somebody who worked for five years in Belfast, sometimes living there and sometimes commuting, that there is a huge cohort of people and businesses from the EU who deserve representation in the place where they choose to make their home. Both Irish citizens and those from our wider European family could, and should, rightly expect to be able to access some supports while living in a country so closely aligned with those around it. Until last January there was a European Commission office in Belfast, so to object now to the establishment of the Belfast office of the EU delegation to the UK is remarkable.
Although the deadline for departure looms we appear to be still at a relatively early stage in the arrangements for cross-border co-operation after the UK has left the European Union. It may be that some of this difficulty could simply be due to an ongoing vagueness around what exactly is proposed for these border supports. It is vital that this vagueness is addressed in both the envisaged arrangements for border controls and the integration of climate targets under any agreement.
I too am glad to be back to debating Brexit. I will deal with a technical point first. I found the stakeholders forum on Brexit a very helpful and informative forum both for me and all politicians, but it is not a great idea to have both on the same day. Having statements in the House means that Members who are not Dublin based, like me, could not participate in it. I say that for future reference.
If Ireland, like the rest of the world, had not been overtaken and overwhelmed by the Covid-19 crisis it is quite clear that Brexit would still be dominating the debate and discourse here. The problem is that since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis matters have not only not progressed but we are now in an incredible and dangerous position of dealing with a UK Government in denial as time slips by. The UK committed itself to a protocol, to have a transition arrangement and to have negotiations for future relationships sorted by the end of the transition period. We have less than two months to achieve a settlement. Most people who are directly involved in the negotiations believe it is not going to happen and that it is impossible given the current mindset of the British Government for it to happen. We must be alert to that and talk openly about it. The Tánaiste in his utterances always uses the measured phraseology of Iveagh House, which is right and proper, but there is a fundamental reality now when one hears the commentary of people such as the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Mr. Gove, which is basically moving backwards, not forwards, in respect of matters that are of fundamental importance to us.
If we do not have an agreement within the next two months, and there is a fixation in the current position of the British Government to have no extension of the transition arrangements beyond the end of this year, all the brinkmanship, negotiations and the late hours - I happened to be in Brussels on the day the agreement was finally made - would come to naught. What we have worked assiduously for, and what the Tánaiste's fantastic team has worked so well with the Barnier team to achieve, will all be set at naught.
Our first objective, therefore, is to press the UK, including our unionist friends in Northern Ireland, for an extension of the transition arrangements. It ought to be realised that the fixation on achieving the exit of Britain, even from the transition arrangements, at the expense of rational economic planning is just not good politics. It is not the way rational governments operate. We need to persuade the UK to go beyond the end of this year. Perhaps that is in train and maybe there is an associated matter of timing, but we have to have our cards a little more face up in regard to these issues.
I will ask specific questions on these matters when I get an opportunity later. If what the British Government wants - to have unfettered access to our markets at no cost to itself, with the right to undermine all our standards and demolish what is euphemistically known as the level playing field - is taken at face value, it cannot be and will not be because the Single Market would not exist on that basis. What is our plan B if that is to be the fixed position?
Let me refer to another issue, which will be raised in questions later, and let me put it in a crude way that the Tánaiste probably could not put it. In terms of our negotiating stance, the ace cards are held by the European Union in all the trade portfolios except one, namely fisheries, in respect of which it is acknowledged that the UK has a stronger hand - to put it in playing card terms. On that basis, it was always going to be an integrated negotiation; we were never going to segregate out, but now the argument coming from the UK, if I hear it correctly, is that it wants to negotiate sector by sector. That must not be. I hope the Tánaiste will make it crystal clear that the latter will not be allowed.
I am quite surprised that the Tánaiste has welcomed the fact that the UK has stated it will respect all its legal undertakings under the withdrawal agreement. It is a sign of how serious this has become that we are in the position of welcoming something that should be a given. It should be an absolute given when entering an agreement that people will respect the legal undertakings. What is occurring is a sign of the difficult situation in which we find ourselves. Previous speakers alluded to this matter.
With respect to the future-relationship negotiations, I am very concerned that the UK is resisting the incorporation of guarantees on international climate change commitments into the agreement . It is also resisting the principles of the European green deal. It is important that the European Convention on Human Rights be incorporated. As the previous speaker indicated, we must have a level playing field in order to avoid a race to the bottom in environmental standards and workplace rights. A level playing field is an important counterweight to the neoliberal vision of a free market based on privatisation and deregulation. We cannot tolerate a scenario where UK-based firms could undercut EU firms as a result of less stringent competition in respect of state aid rules, lower taxes and more lax social and environmental protections. The message from the Government should be strong, namely, that we will not stand by and allow dumping, undercutting and the erosion of rights and standards that have been hard fought for and won over several decades. Verbal assurances from the United Kingdom that it will honour these values cannot be relied upon. We can be quite certain about that. A level playing field must be incorporated in binding clauses in the trade agreement; there is no question about that. It is crucial to our future and the future direction of the European Union. Any diminution of environmental or workplace standards that is allowed or tolerated will in effect be used over the coming years to reduce and erode standards and rights within the European Union, and we will see a race to the bottom. Addressing this is very important to the future direction of the European project.
I want to talk a little about the impact on trade. It is worth noting the comments of the director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, Mr. Aodhán Connolly, who has warned of significant potential costs associated with importing food and other products across the Irish Sea if solutions are not found. Research by the consortium shows that a single truck entering the North from Britain could be carrying as much as 1,392 different items, 500 of which could be of animal origin.
There are significant potential costs and delays associated with importing goods that could have a detrimental effect on the Northern Irish economy and also could have knock-on effects on the Republic.
Businesses will need time to prepare, all the more so as they have been exclusively focused on Covid-19 and dealing with immediate survival. We must be cognisant of the potential impacts on businesses, including farming and in particular the beef sector, and on the fishing industry. As a representative of a fishing community, I am keenly aware of the devastating social and human impact of previous European Union agreements that effectively sacrificed the interests of the Irish fishing industry. We cannot allow that to happen again. It is essential at this point that the UK Government provide details, including timelines, of the arrangements it will put in place as quickly as possible. We cannot allow the UK Government to effectively run down the clock on this, which is what appears to be happening. It does not want to give detail or engage in the full knowledge that the less time, detail and engagement there is, the better chance it has of fulfilling its aim, which is clearly to get rid of a level playing field and to have a free trade agreement on that basis. We must be strong on that point to protect the integrity of Irish industry and goods and to protect the future direction of the European Union. That is important for us and for the people of Britain and the European Union.
The Trump-like buffoonery and recklessness of Boris Johnson have been fairly evident to most people in this House and country for some time. If there is something of a silver lining to the grim public health emergency and pandemic that we face, it is that the buffoonery and recklessness on Johnson's part has been further revealed. For most people, Brexit and everything else are being seen largely through the prism of this unprecedented Covid-19 emergency. The buffoonery and recklessness on his part have undoubtedly contributed to a worse situation developing, tragically, for many British people through his slowness and reluctance to impose public health measures and his dismissal in the initial stages of the seriousness of the pandemic. I hope that both in Britain and in the United States the sort of recklessness and buffoonery that Trump and Johnson represent has been exposed in the eyes of more and more people. I hope and believe that is also true in the North and elsewhere. Given the sort of recklessness they have displayed, which is continuing with Johnson essentially raising the spectre of a crash-out Brexit with the disastrous consequences that would have, North and South on this island, it seems to me that we must use this opportunity to show ourselves to be so much better than the recklessness and buffoonery that Johnson's politics represent. If the possibility of a crash-out Brexit emerges because of his attitudes and policies and his plans for a race to the bottom, we must make the case to people in the North in particular for a break and move towards a united Ireland. The case, for example, for an all-Ireland response to Covid-19 is very apparent to people North and South. That is something that has been resisted by Johnson and some in the Northern political system. It is very apparent to large numbers of people North and South, regardless of their community background, that it makes sense to have an all-Ireland response to a public health emergency, but it also makes sense to have an all-Ireland response to the threat of a no-deal Brexit.
If we are to make that case and talk about the possibility of uniting the North and South of this island, we must show ourselves to be better than Boris Johnson in every single regard. Notwithstanding differences of opinion and emphasis, there is no doubt that the response by this State to the public health emergency has been better than that of Boris Johnson, but we must continue to be better in everything. It is blatantly obvious that if we are going to make the case to people in the North that we should unite this island, we must at a minimum have an all-Ireland national health service which is properly resourced, with the necessary capacity, where we treat our health workers properly and well. People in the North will not be attracted to a united Ireland if it involves a two-tier under-resourced, under-capacity health service. One thing that we could and should do now is indicate our determination to move immediately to a proper national health service, something that has become apparent in the response to Covid-19. A united Ireland where the State runs a proper national health service on all parts of this island is something that could win over people in the North who might retain allegiance to the UK.
Coming from a Border county, I know the devastating effects that Brexit will have if we do not put in place the necessary measures to deal with it. There are still so many unanswered questions. I am deeply concerned that its effects could be disastrous on a Border town like Dundalk. Last week, I raised the different approaches to deal with Covid-19 on both sides of the Border and the devastating effects of that. The Border area now has the highest number of recorded cases of Covid-19. I hope this is not a sign of things to come, where different approaches to situations are taken on both sides of the Border with those living in Border regions suffering most. That is not acceptable. I am very worried about the lack of clarity on many issues. The UK Government has shown an arrogance in its approach to this, such as its recent refusal of an EU office in Belfast. What does this say about Britain's approach to negotiations? I am also worried at the lack of information available to businesses. Border businesses regularly tell me that they do not know what is really happening. Among the questions they ask me are whether there will be a hard border or a customs check at the Border, and what will be the situation with tariffs. How will cross-border workers be treated? How will standards be implemented? Will cross-Border agencies still exist? The list is endless.
People on the ground still have no clue what will happen once Brexit happens, particularly in the event of no deal. We still do not have a roadmap for businesses in the event of a no-deal Brexit. We are constantly told that there will be no hard border and no issues for cross-Border workers and that there will be no customs checks at the Border. How can the Tánaiste insist this is the case when there is no real roadmap? The Government's UK counterparts are not of the same opinion. Their arrogance is undoubtedly a matter of negotiation tactics but I deal with people and businesses on the ground who cannot afford to play these political games. The people of Border counties such as Louth, Monaghan, Cavan, Leitrim and Donegal need to get real answers now so that they can prepare properly for Brexit. The Government has told businesses that "when the transition period ends, Brexit is likely to affect how you do business" and advises businesses to review supply chains, understand the new rules for importing and exporting to Britain, and review all regulation, licensing and certification requirements. That is just stating the obvious. Businesses know they have to do this; what they need is facts. They are still in the dark about how things will operate in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The important thing is that a real roadmap for Brexit is implemented.
Brexit, despite our not voting for it, is happening. We must prepare for the worst-case scenario, that is, a no-deal Brexit. We must not be used as pawns in the negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom. We must give a clear commitment that Ireland is protected in all negotiations between the EU and the UK. We have seen how the backstop was dropped despite being told that it would protect those of us on the island of Ireland. We cannot be weak on this. I urge the Tánaiste to protect Ireland's interests at all times.
As we all know, the UK left the European Union on 31 January 2020. The withdrawal agreement allows a transition period until 31 December 2020. The UK has said it will not extend the transition period beyond this period. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, will there be a hard border on the island of Ireland? What will the hard border be like? Will all goods be checked at the Border? What plans has the Government made in the event of a hard border in respect of customs checks? These are real questions that those operating businesses along the Border in towns like Dundalk have put to me. They need clarity on this rather than vague replies. It is important that they are given real answers. I call on the Tánaiste to be specific in his answers. If it is the case that the Tánaiste does not have the answers, then he should state as much. It is better for businesses to know where they stand so they can then put a plan in place.
Another concern for those along the Border is the treatment of cross-border workers. Can the Tánaiste set out what plans are in place for the treatment of cross-border workers in the event of a no-deal Brexit? How will workers travelling from Dundalk to the North be affected in the event of a no-deal Brexit? Likewise, how will workers from the North be affected? Again, I am being asked these questions. People are concerned that they will be stopped at the Border, that commuting times will be extended and that their daily lives will be interrupted. Will a driving licence still be valid in both jurisdictions? Will car insurance still be valid in both jurisdictions? Clarity on these issues is needed. Can the Tánaiste confirm what arrangements are being made for students in the event of a no-deal Brexit?
That is fine. Obviously, Brexit is bad news for the island of Ireland. We will all have to protect strongly the sectors of our society most at risk. Agriculture is one sector that faces major challenges with markets in the UK in jeopardy with Brexit. If the survival of Irish farmers is to continue, we need the South American Mercosur trade deal completely off the table for legitimate reasons, for traceability reasons, for environmental reasons and for so many other reasons. Is this trade deal going to be opposed by the Government?
The British made it clear from the first mention of Brexit that they want Irish trawlers out of British waters. This will have nightmare consequences for Irish fishermen. We are also facing a further nightmare situation. When other European trawlers are removed from UK waters, they will turn into what are already over-fished Irish waters. The media have been constantly saying in recent times that Irish waters are over-fished. What they have always failed to realise is that Irish trawlers are not over-fishing Irish waters. It is the foreign trawlers that are over-fishing Irish waters. The question I want to raise with the Tánaiste is the fact that Irish fishing vessels will now be asked to move out of English waters. What protections are in place for those Irish trawlers? What protections are in place for the Irish Sea? Will foreign vessels turn into Irish waters? If they do, we are facing a shocking and difficult situation. What securities are in place to ensure that does not happen? These are questions I would like answered.
I thank the Tánaiste for his work on Brexit to date. Unlike most other Deputies, I could observe Brexit from a Brussels perspective. As an Irish MEP I considered, like others, that we were well-represented. Of course, things have moved on. In recent times, Brexit has somewhat disappeared from the radar because of Covid-19. In a way, it is like the coronavirus in that it is still lurking in the background, but hiding in plain sight, as it were.
Now that Boris Johnson is back in Downing Street, we can have some hope that there will be some real progress and not a continuation of the current incessant foot dragging. In this context we need to continue the pressure for an extension of the negotiating period. Covid-19 could be seen as a kind of force majeure, a good enough reason to seek and agree to an extension. Right now it seems to me as if the current trajectory will drive us straight into a brick wall. As the Taoiseach said, there will be another round of talks next week, and it is do or die as June is just around the corner. I agree with Deputy Howlin. It is at that point now.
Another issue of real concern is that the UK has not made its negotiating position public. The EU has committed to transparency. This mismatch creates its own difficulties. Commissioner Hogan spoke this morning on radio of the slow progress the UK is making in seeking to play Covid-19 for any negative outcome on Brexit. He spoke of the UK as still trying to divide and conquer and to move over the heads of the European Commission. He also said, however, that Mr. Barnier, following a meeting with the EU ambassador, said that is not working. Commissioner Hogan's assessment, therefore, while quite bleak, is probably fairly accurate.
The Tánaiste in his speech mentioned not just a level playing field but a strong level playing field, yet all we hear from the negotiations is that the UK is still attempting to cherry-pick. It is looking at some of the deals already in place - the Canadian trade deal, the Korean trade deal, the Japanese trade deal and others - and trying to pick the bits and pieces that suit it. This approach, as we all know, is a disaster because it prevents any real progress from being made and brings us to the brink.
As other Deputies have said, we have to remain steadfast and resolute. The Tánaiste knows, I know, we all know how crucial it is that the EU continues to maintain a fully united front, and I expect that will continue. I was heartened to hear the Tánaiste's absolute commitment to the Irish protocol - I know he helped negotiated it - but because of the reckless position of the UK, it cannot be restated often enough. He also mentioned he had a conversation with Michel Barnier about the land bridge. I will come back to that during the questions and answers, but it is a crucial route to the EU market, to which we will have full access, and we must absolutely ensure that it remains open and functions effectively.
I wish to mention the huge concerns we all share about agriculture and food production. As we know, 40% of our food exports go to the UK, and the threat to farming and food production is simply enormous for all regions, but perhaps even more so for the Border region. Again, I will come back to that during the questions and answers.
Like Covid-19, there are no easy answers to Brexit, but we have to negotiate Brexit with our EU partners and minimise any negative outcomes for this island, which is simply an island behind an island off the coast of Europe.
I am sharing my time with Deputy Brendan Smith. The Tánaiste said two rounds of negotiations have taken place so far, a third round will take place next week and a final round in June. The indications are not very positive at this stage and there is no indication that the UK will seek an extension. The Tánaiste did, however, report some progress on the protocol on Ireland, and that is good to hear, but we know what Michael Gove has said about the proposed EU office in Belfast.
It has obviously become an issue. My party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, stated yesterday that he does not detect any objection to such an office in Northern Ireland itself so it is important that the Tánaiste remains strong on that issue. It is not a major issue in the overall scheme of things, but it is a symbolic one and it would be important to have that EU office in order to monitor the situation in the context of customs arrangements and so on in Larne and Belfast. I would be interested to hear more information about that.
The Tánaiste indicated that we need to prepare for all outcomes. We certainly must prepare for a no-deal scenario. The latter is a possibility that is coming down the tracks and could have major implications for our agrifood, manufacturing and tourism sectors, and for SMEs generally. What governmental structures are in place to bring supports to these businesses? Some structures were in place before the Covid-19 crisis but those sectors and SMEs in general will need a lot of support to survive this economic tsunami. Apart from the Cabinet, are there structures in place, such as Cabinet sub-committees, to ensure that fair and positive consideration is given to offering supports to the sectors which will badly need them?
I have a few quick comments to make. In the context of both Brexit and Covid-19, we need maximum co-operation on an all-Ireland basis. I again appeal to the Government, as I did some weeks ago, to amend the recent regulations and enable gardaí to restrict the movements of people where necessary and regardless of whether they are resident outside State. I am concerned that my own Border county of Cavan continues to have the highest incidence of Covid-19 in the country and that the neighbouring county, Monaghan, which is also part of my constituency, has the third highest incidence. Some time ago, I appealed to the Minister for Health to have this high incidence in the two counties investigated as a matter of urgency and, if necessary, provide the additional resources to both our public and private healthcare providers to tackle any identified deficiency in local health provision. I highly commend the inspirational work of our healthcare personnel at local level.
As the Tánaiste knows well, there has been excellent co-operation on an all-Ireland basis over many years in dealing with serious animal disease issues. We need that level of co-operation and sharing of information to fight Covid-19. That would in some way ease the stress and worry endured by the people I represent on this side of the Border and the people I know and speak with every day of the week on both sides of the Border. Covid-19 recognises neither border nor identity.
I understand that contact tracing applications are being developed here by the HSE and by the NHS in Northern Ireland on the basis of different models. We will have the added problem of data transfers to and from Britain after its departure from the EU on 31 December. If there is no extension to the transition period, Britain will then become a third country in the context of data protection rules.
That is okay. Under the general data protection regulation, the transfer of personal data will be prohibited once Britain becomes a third country. That includes personal health data. The North and the South are very interdependent and need key health tools, such as those applications, to speak to each other in the best interests of the citizens on all of this island. Let tracing applications do what they are supposed to do, namely, help members of the public to protect themselves.
There are some good questions there and I will try and answer them as directly as I can. The prospects for the next round of negotiations, on the basis of the evidence so far, are not good. Now that the Prime Minister is healthy again and making decisions, we must hope that he will instruct his negotiating team, through David Frost, to ensure that the negotiations on this matter, which start next week, will be more successful than those undertaken previously. The approaches being taken by the UK and EU sides are totally different and we must take that into account.
The EU is consistent with what we have been saying for months, and consistent with what was said in the political declaration around the future relationship, which was supposed to set the scene for this negotiation. It said that we need a comprehensive agreement that involves multiple different areas that are all interconnected from a level playing field to fishing, to market access, to ensuring tariff-free and quota-free trade and a range of other things. The UK has decided to take a different approach, that is, to break it up into different segments and negotiate them separately, picking the ones that are most important to it for now. The EU cannot do a deal on that basis. The negotiating team do not have the mandate to negotiate on that basis, and the UK knows that. I hope the approach will be somewhat different next week so that we can take a more pragmatic approach towards trying to make progress and, at least by the time we get to the end of June, be able to make an assessment that has a prospect of success in the second half of the year because at the moment that looks very different.
As this is my maiden speech, I hope the Acting Chairman can indulge me for a few minutes. I would like to begin by offering my sincere condolences to all the families who have lost loved ones through the coronavirus disease. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.
I would like to give thanks to the people of Wexford for voting for me and to all those who came out and exercised their democratic franchise. I am humbled and grateful to them for placing their trust in me. I hope I will serve them with honour, dignity and humility. In my gratitude, I thank my faithful and hard-working campaign team and, lastly, my family and wife who I am completely indebted to as I would not be here without their unconditional love and support.
I want to place on record the many thousands of voices from my model county who voted for change and yet have witnessed their democratic rights suffocated under a veil of self-interest and an insatiable desire for power. A servant to power is not a servant of the people.
Covid-19 has caused a traumatic shock to normality. We cannot let it lead to the bleak austerity we have faced since 2009. It is now time for the Central Bank and the banking sector to play a far more active role in rescuing the people who rescued them.
Brexit also poses its own set of economic challenges. This week, the British Government has begun trade talks with the USA. Down the line, that will have many implications for the Irish markets, food and hygiene standards to name but one. I ask the Minister to undertake the protection of our agrifood industry, fishing industry and tourism sector across the entire island of Ireland, and particularly in Wexford, and ensure they are buffeted against any Brexit tariffs, including the possible huge increases in the ad valoremtariffs. Rosslare Europort is a linchpin between commerce and trade and is the closest link to Britain and Europe. Increased upgrading and investing in this strategic port will bring benefits, value and dividends to all our citizens for decades to come. I plead with the Minister to, please, act on that.
I have three questions for the Tánaiste and I will be as brief as possible. The first is to ask him to join me in calling on the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to seek an extension to the talks. It was very challenging to do it within 12 months. It is far more challenging now that we are in the month of May and that we have the Covid pandemic to deal with as well. Will he do that, and urge his European colleagues to seek that course of action to give us that flexibility?
Second, the fishing industry was raised earlier by myself and other Deputies. We know that this industry is crucial. It will be an unmitigated disaster, in the words of the CEO of the Killybegs Fishermen's Organisation, KFO, if we do not reach the end of 2020 without a deal. We know that one third of the fish caught by our fleet in EU waters will become British waters if no deal comes to pass. It is estimated that this could wipe out 5,000 jobs in that sector alone. What reassurances, if any, can the Tánaiste give that sector at this point in time? What is the Government doing to defend its interest?
I beg the Tánaiste's indulgence in asking a final, separate question. This morning, at long last, a very welcome scheme was announced to provide care for the children of healthcare professionals while they are working on the front line. In just the last few hours, the insurance company that provides cover to the sector has said it will not insure any provider for Covid-related illnesses. The company says it has engaged with the Government for the last six weeks and the latter is refusing to indemnify those workers. This is causing huge anxiety for front-line health staff who thought they would have this support by 18 May as well as for the care workers who want to provide the support but have no insurance cover to do so, either from the State or their insurance provider. Will the Tánaiste deal urgently with this issue?
I will come back to the Deputy on the last point. It is clearly a serious issue and we want to, and will, ensure childcare provision is made available for healthcare workers. If we have to intervene, then I am sure it will be looked at as a matter of urgency. This issue has been discussed for long enough now and it needs to be resolved.
On the fishing industry, I was formerly a Minister with responsibility for fisheries and I understand the industry well. It is extremely vulnerable to the wrong outcome from Brexit negotiations. That is why I and others have always insisted that a resolution to the fisheries issues linked to Brexit needs to be done in the context of a trade deal, not siphoned away and dealt with separately but as part of an overall agreement that involves many sectors. That is the way in which we will get the right deal for Irish fishermen. I do not believe the EU will move away from that approach. We spoke directly this morning in a stakeholders group to Sean O'Donoghue, head of the Killybegs Fishermen's Organisation, to which the Deputy referred. I assure the Deputy that we will continue to represent fishing interests as a big priority. I suspect there will be a lot more focus on the fisheries debate in the next couple of weeks. At the moment, the approaches from the two sides to the negotiations on fishing are diametrically opposed. We know the emotion that comes with fishing issues and the sovereignty issues that are linked to the fishing debate. This means that, in many ways, the issue is much more important and difficult to resolve politically than suggested by the industry's overall share of GDP and so on. I know only too well how important it is for places like Donegal, west Cork, Connemara, Wexford and others that we have a vibrant fishing industry into the future.
On the question of the UK seeking an extension to Brexit negotiations, I ask the Acting Chairman to give me a little latitude in responding as I know other Members will ask about it. We need to be clever here. I believe that we need an extension and we need more time, but there are ways and means of achieving this, if it is possible to do it. It may not be possible. We know that the British position is very clear and adamant right now. David Frost has outlined, as has Michael Gove, that the UK will not be seeking an extension. The idea that the ask should come from Ireland or the EU, where it would be seen by the UK as a concession to the EU to agree to an extension, is not the way to approach this. We need to work to convince the UK that more time is needed to get a good deal for everybody, including the UK.
As previously stated, it is important that some of the vagueness is addressed around what is envisaged in the arrangements for border checks and oversight and the integration of climate targets under any future agreement. I understand the negotiations are at a delicate stage but will the Tánaiste outline whether proposals are currently being discussed as to whether the Border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will be co-managed by the EU and the UK or if it is envisaged that the UK will manage any checks or border controls with occasional assistance from EU officials or perhaps sector-specific assistance? If the answer to that question is not clear, the Tánaiste might answer another question.
Do we have a backup plan to protect Irish consumers from products produced under a divergent UK standard or could UK checks and border oversight be the only method of protecting Irish consumers and farmers from imports such as American chlorinated chicken and South American beef?
Does the Tánaiste support an adherence to the Paris Agreement obligations under any trade deal between the UK and the European Union?
I have four and a half minutes so there is no excuse for me not to give answers. Climate change and environmental standards are a key part of the level playing field ask on behalf of the EU. A level playing field means ensuring that there is fair competition in the UK and in the EU if there is going to be free trade between both, be that in regard to workers' rights, environmental standards, food safety or consumer-based issues. From an EU perspective the main issues are environmental standards, climate standards and commitments. In the EU objectives, the EU reaffirms effective implementation of the Paris Agreement and the commitments therein, and calls on the UK to maintain a system of carbon pricing, including, possibly, linking the UK emissions trading system, ETS, to the EU emissions trading system. It is also calling for the UK to maintain common standards, including targets in place at the end of the transition period and environmental standards across various sectors of the agreement, including in transport, which makes sense for both parties. It is very much integrated into these negotiations, but if we do not have serious negotiation and engagement from the UK side on level playing field issues and the current approach of refusing to accept that this needs to be part of a deal, then we are running into a roadblock. I hope that we will see a different approach to what we are calling a level playing field but could be called whatever might be more politically saleable in the UK, but we have to ensure that the standards and the state intervention and supports in the UK and in the EU are comparable and equivalent if there is to be tariff and quota-free trade. Otherwise, it cannot be done because we would be essentially allowing free access into a market of 450 million and allowing the UK to derive competitive advantage by changing standards to suit itself. There will never be a trade deal done on that basis. It cannot happen. That reality has to be understood.
I hope I have answered all of Deputy Hourigan's questions.
The Paris Agreement is part of it. I will try now to respond to some other questions I did not get to earlier. On the structure and the planning for a no-trade deal Brexit here, it will be a matter for the new Government but I suspect it will be managed predominantly by the Taoiseach's office in partnership with the office of the Tánaiste, as it was in the past in the build up to crisis points in Brexit. We collectively managed the preparation and communications, working with the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and other Departments, but the Taoiseach's office was central to that co-ordination, which is how it should be. There is a Cabinet sub-committee too. The key Ministers met to discuss Brexit a couple of days ago and we will probably have a formal Cabinet sub-committee meeting on Brexit in the next few weeks. We are gearing up on these issues again. Even though Covid-19 is to the fore in terms of the concerns of people and business in Ireland, the Government has to plan for the challenges over the next six months which the next Government will have to address.
On Deputy Brendan Smith's questions, whom I note has left the Chamber, the Garda and the PSNI have never been closer than they are right now in terms of co-operation. The way to deal with movement cross-border is to ensure that the PSNI and An Garda Síochána are engaging with each other and are applying the same types of restrictions in terms of preventing unnecessary movement and travel. My understanding is that this is happening. Members will not find me wanting in the context of encouraging more North-South co-operation in virtually every area.
I congratulate Deputy Mythen on his maiden speech.
I look forward to working with the Deputy. I take the points he has raised in regard to the potential trade deal that the UK would like to pursue with the US, and the potential consequences of that for some of the issues that were raised in respect of standards that we in the EU would regard as unacceptable, particularly in the areas of food and agriculture. Of course, if we do not have the full implementation of the protocol in Ireland and Northern Ireland around checks in Larne, Belfast and any other ports of entry in Northern Ireland, then we cannot guarantee, as the protocol will if it is implemented, the integrity of the EU Single Market in full without any form of border infrastructure on this island, North and South, which is guaranteed under that protocol.
I also congratulate Deputy Mythen, my constituency colleague, on his maiden speech and look forward to many more such speeches in the years to come.
I will confine myself to three questions initially. Hopefully, the Tánaiste will be concise in his answers to those and I will have time for two further questions. I want to further push the point regarding an extension of the negotiation period. I am certainly of the view that we are not going to have an agreement within that timeframe, although I understand the Tánaiste will not say that. As a result, we need to know where we stand in terms of real dialogue, particularly with the unionists in Northern Ireland, in respect of achieving the consensus we really need in order to have a working relationship between our islands and between Britain and the EU. To achieve that, we will need a proper negotiating period and mandate, and an extension.
Related to that, if the impossible position outlined by the UK Minister, Mr. Gove, and others is maintained, and if that is not the negotiating position but the fixed and immutable position of the British Government, we are potentially talking about a Cabinet sub-committee working on a plan B or other alternatives to that. How are we going to develop the latter? Are we going to do it in a subterranean way or are we going go have democratic debate about that? What will happen if that fixed unacceptable position of the United Kingdom is maintained?
My third question is about solidarity. The Taoiseach referred yesterday to a display of European solidarity during the first round of Brexit. He is absolutely right, and many were surprised by how well that solidarity held. However, that solidarity is undermined a little by some of the actions of late, not in terms of Brexit but of Covid-19, and certainly in terms of the solidarity being expressed regarding the mutualisation of debt, for example, and facing up to particular matters. Is the Tánaiste confident that this solidarity will be maintained?
On solidarity, the answer is "Yes". I have good reason to believe that, having spoken to Michel Barnier and others across the EU. As chief negotiator, Michel Barnier has done an extraordinary amount of travelling in order to meet, talk to and persuade people that the approach we have taken on Brexit is the right one and that it is based on unity of purpose and solidarity. If that solidarity were to crack, our approach would become much more challenging. That is understood and there is a very strong sense of unity and solidarity on the Brexit issue. I know Covid-19 is somewhat different. It took the EU by surprise and it was an emergency response, literally overnight in the case of some countries. Solidarity is difficult to maintain in the context of that kind of political and social stress. Brexit is the opposite because there was a gradual build-up to it. The EU has built up its blocks solidly every step of the way and we have a very solid foundation to try to conclude this deal, if we have a negotiating partner that is willing to get it across the line.
On extension, as I informed Deputy Doherty earlier, the easy thing is just too call for an extension but we do not get an extension unless the UK side wants to pursue that approach. At the moment, it does not, so we have to figure out, if we believe more time is needed, how we can convince the UK of that and how we can make it as easy as possible for it politically to take that approach.
We have spoken to the UK Government and we have spoken to many on the EU side.
Let me be clear with the House, because it is important to be, that there is no hidden solution that will pop up in a few weeks' time. The UK Government's position is firm. Unless and until that changes, and we have not seen any evidence to suggest it is going to, and I want to be honest with everybody about that, at the moment the way I see it is that we are unlikely to see a request for an extension. Therefore, we will have to plan on the basis of trying to find a way of getting an agreement on these very difficult timelines. If it is not possible to conclude an agreement because of the tightness of these timelines we have to have plans in place to try to protect Irish interests as best we can. None of this is easy and I think it is important to be upfront about it.
The latter part of the question is whether we will have a democratic debate about these plans. Are they being marshalled below the political waterline? I have one more question. In terms of the Belfast office, I understand the Minister does not want to make it a big issue but the issue is a surprise for most of us when it was an accepted fact up to recent times. Is there any logical reason or understanding of the British position on having a Northern Ireland office?
-----just as we did previously also. I do not know how many times I have stood up here and answered questions on Brexit and preparedness and I will be willing to do so in the future if I am lucky enough to hold office. Of course we will do that. That is what engaging with Brexit stakeholders is all about, to try to inform these decisions in as broad and as democratic a way as possible.
Sorry. I have spoken to Michael Gove on this issue. I have told him that I cannot understand their reluctance to accept this. In my view, as someone who is involved in the process, it was understood and it was a non-issue, quite frankly. It has now become an issue and I can only assume it is because politics have been created around this issue. We have to find a way to diffuse it and find a sensible approach to ensure there can be an EU presence to reassure the EU side that the protocol is being implemented fully. It will be implemented by the UK, with UK customs officials and UK vets and sanitary and phytosanitary specialists.
In respect of the level playing field, the Tánaiste said it does not matter what it is called, that it is the substance that matters and that it may be an issue of different language around it. This misunderstands what Brexit is fundamentally about for the people who supported it. Effectively, it is a strategy to undercut European Union standards and conditions in terms of climate and workers' rights. It is an attempt to get access to European Union markets as a free ride without the responsibilities that come with it. This is a fundamental part of the strategy of the people who proposed and pushed Brexit and who are now in senior roles in the British Government. Given this, what approach will the Government take on this? This is fundamentally what they are trying to achieve. This is what they want and what they are about. We need to recognise this is not something on which there will be easily won concessions. None of this will be easy but this will be the hardest part because it is fundamentally what they are trying to do.
The issue of the EU office in Belfast was agreed in Article 12 of the Northern Ireland-Ireland protocol, which states there will be European Union access for oversight and that it should be facilitated by the UK. It is effectively already agreed. I take the point it should never have been elevated to the level it has reached but given that it has been and its importance in terms of the European Union having transparent robust oversight of the checks system, it is very important there is full confidence in it throughout the European Union so there is full confidence in goods produced in Ireland. Therefore, is it not important that we take a stronger position on it?
From a negotiating point of view, given that the UK Government has elevated this now, does it not make sense for us to take a stronger position on it? It is effectively putting it in as one of several things that are in the mix at the moment. If we concede too easily on it, does it not weaken our position? On that point of negotiating strategy and tactics, the UK's approach is effectively one of running down the clock. It is taking quite a reckless approach to these negotiations. Does it make sense for us to meet that with the kind of pragmatic diplomacy that seems to be the current approach? Given the positions it is taking and its negotiating tactics and style, should we not be taking a more robust strategy and stance?
The only thing I would say to that is that the Deputy should not confuse diplomacy with weakness. We have got the results we have been looking for, by and large, through these Brexit negotiations. In terms of the Irish protocol, the protections of the Good Friday Agreement, the absolute assurance we have now in law to prevent Border infrastructure re-emerging on the island of Ireland, people predicted that many of those things could not be negotiated or happen. Sometimes a stand-off on something is not necessarily the best way to find a way forward that both sides can live with. Of course we think having an EU office in Belfast or somewhere in Northern Ireland makes absolute sense. We will try to find a way of getting that done. However, it is one of dozens of issues that need to be negotiated and agreed. It is important but it is not the most important issue. I do not want to create an issue and then get a result on that but actually lose on something much more important. We will work with Michel Barnier and his team strategically to try to get multiple things across the line over the next few weeks on the Irish protocol.
The most important thing in terms of the Irish protocol from my perspective is to see physical infrastructure being put in place in Belfast and Larne, in the ports. We know here the time it takes and the cost of putting infrastructure in Dublin Port and Rosslare Europort, as both Deputies from Wexford will know only too well. This is not done quickly. Recruiting sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, inspectors, vets and customs officials to make sure that we can streamline checks that do not slow down traffic and all the rest of it takes time.
The protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland is a very complex protocol to implement and to ensure it functions in a way that does not disrupt trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, on which of course we do not want to have a negative impact, but it is also there to ensure that the EU is reassured that its Single Market is not seeing an unguarded back door opening through Northern Ireland. That is why an EU presence is necessary. Whether it is actually housed in Belfast or somewhere else is up for discussion and negotiation. This matter seems to have turned into a threat to sovereignty issue, almost, in London, that if there is an EU presence, somehow, the EU is telling us what to do. That is not what the EU is about here at all. The protocol is clear. This is to be implemented by the UK. It is also clear, however, that the EU is entitled to have a presence to ensure it is being done in a way that reassures everybody.
All I am saying is that there are many issues on which we will need to take a stand and find a way forward. Sometimes tough talk and creating defensive stand-offs on issues, particularly with this British Government, is perhaps not the best way to get it done.
I will try to get through three questions and answers. It is clear from the approach of the Tory Government that the question of a hard border on the island of Ireland is again coming into focus. Boris Johnson, as has been referred to, has ruled out the idea of an extension of the transition period, which means that this can be posed sooner rather than later. It will be posed at the end of the year. In the past, the European Commission has been very clear in saying that a no-deal Brexit would mean a hard border on the island of Ireland.
That would be a disaster in terms of the interests of ordinary, working class people on both sides of that border economically and with the potential for the rise of sectarianism. It is also clear that it is the European Commission that may demand the Irish Government impose a hard border to defend the Single Market and that it would be up to an Irish Government to impose that border and to allocate people and resources to enforce it. Ultimately there is a decision to be made, potentially in that negative scenario, by an Irish Government. If the Tánaiste is still responsible for Brexit at that point in time would he go along with such a request from the European Commission and impose a hard border or would the Tánaiste refuse to do so?
There is a misunderstanding in the question. We are not facing the prospect of a hard border again. A no-deal Brexit in this round means a no-trade deal Brexit. We have a deal that prevents a hard border. It is called the withdrawal agreement and the Irish protocol that is in it. We also have a British Government that, as late as last week, confirmed that it will implement the protocol and that it understands its legal obligations in full in the context of its implementation. Let us not create a concern here where it is not merited. We have an arrangement that prevents border infrastructure being necessary on this island even if there is no trade deal in place. The British Government said it will implement that protocol linked to the withdrawal agreement to ensure that this is the case. That involves some limited checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland from GB. Because of the acceptance that there cannot be any border infrastructure between North and South the checks need to happen on entry into Northern Ireland as if the goods were coming into the EU Single Market. That is understood and it took the guts of two years to put together. Let us not equate a no-deal Brexit six months ago with a no-deal Brexit before the end of the year. A no-trade deal Brexit creates a huge problem and huge uncertainty for Irish business. We will deal with that if we have to but we will do everything we can to negotiate a better outcome than that. We have a protocol as part of the withdrawal agreement that deals comprehensively with the Border issue and with protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the relationships on the island. We need to provide reassurance to people that this is in place as an agreement and that we are now pursuing the full implementation of it, to make sure we can put that argument to rest.
A key question in the context of a right-wing Tory Brexit is, as has been referred to, the prospect of a race to the bottom with working conditions, labour regulations and taxation. We have an example now of a company that seems to be putting its workers' health at risk in order to minimise its costs and maximise its profits. We know that a particular fruit company had an internal document, dated 9 April 2020, referring to so-called family units of more than 50 people within which no social distancing was necessary. In the latest document they say that there should be no socialising in groups larger than 19 people but there is no indication that family units have shrunk at all. It appears that workers' health is not being protected. We need a HSA inspection and we need the Unite union to have access to meet with those workers. It has been reported that Keelings made contact with the Tánaiste in advance of 189 seasonal workers arriving into Dublin Airport. What was the form of that contact? Was it a telephone call and if so from who? What was the nature of the communication? What were they asking, what information did they request and what was the nature of the Tánaiste's answer?
I will get to the last question. Even though it has nothing to do with Brexit I will answer it because I want to be totally upfront about it. On the first issue, if this is about a race to the bottom and, as was raised earlier, if it is an attempt by the British Government to undercut EU standards to create competitive advantage while looking to get barrier-free access into the Single Market then there will not be an agreement. Let us be very clear on that. The EU understands exactly what is at stake here. They have to negotiate on the basis of the mandate they have to protect the integrity of the EU Single Market, to try to facilitate a trade deal that is tariff and quota free - if we can - but it has to involve strong level-playing field elements to reassure the EU that they have trade partners who are not trying to undercut them.
If that is the target outcome for the UK, we will not get a deal. That is the issue. We need to ensure, and I believe that the EU will ensure, that this will not be some kind of race to the bottom in an attempt to try to find a deal in a pressurised environment in the context of Covid.
On the Keelings issue, which has nothing to do with Brexit, my office was contacted by Keelings merely to ask whether the airports would close. That was the nature of the conversation and we confirmed they would not close. The advice was given to consult the Department of Health to ensure that the guidelines required in the context of essential workers being brought into the country were fully understood.
I come from the Border area, where people are concerned about what is happening in the North and in the South, and the different approaches on both sides, especially given the high rate of the coronavirus in the Border areas. With the bank holiday weekend approaching in the North, people are afraid that a big wave of people will come from the North to the South and vice versa. Will the Tánaiste tell us what is happening in that regard?
While the Tánaiste commented on the issue earlier, it is disappointing that an EU office will not open in Belfast. I hope that we will not be pawns in the game played between the EU and the UK. Will the Tánaiste elaborate on that?
Dundalk businesspeople say there is a lack of information available. They need a roadmap or guidance from the Government on what will happen. I accept this has been discussed but there is concern in the area and it will not go away. Will there be a hard border? Will there be customs checks on the Border? What is the situation with tariffs? How will workers be treated on both sides of the Border going from Dundalk to the North and vice versa? There is a great deal of concern in that regard. People do not understand the rules, which is why a roadmap is so important. They want to know the rules about importing and exporting to Britain, the regulations, the licences, the certificates and so on. They are concerned in particular about the treatment of cross-Border workers. It is important that this is clarified. If there is going to be a hard border, people worry about how long it will take them to go to and fro and to commute. They are the kinds of problems.
A while ago we discussed car insurance. Will car insurance be valid both North and South or what will happen in that regard? The issue is especially relevant in Dundalk, where we have a lovely college, the Dundalk Institute of Technology, and many students come down from the North. We want to know whether circumstances will stay as they are in both jurisdictions. Other issues that have been discussed include mobile phones and roaming, which took a long time to get sorted out. People have become very concerned about that.
Also, we have a good relationship with our Northern counterparts in the healthcare services.
I accept I have asked a lot of questions and that we seem to be going back to square one. The most important thing the Tánaiste can tell us is whether the Government will have a roadmap for Brexit in the near future.
I can answer those questions directly because the answer is "Yes". That is what the withdrawal agreement was all about. It is what the Irish protocol and the legislation we passed here, and the British Government passed in Westminster, was about too, in respect of protecting the common travel area, and ensuring we protect access for students North and South into each other's universities and cross-Border healthcare co-operation. We spent many months putting together the pieces to ensure we could provide that kind of reassurance. We went as far as saying the Government would, if necessary, pay for students in Northern Ireland being able to access Erasmus+ programmes, even after the UK, including Northern Ireland, leaves the EU. We also got a protocol agreed that will allow the Irish economy to function as an all-island economy, even though there are two jurisdictions. That will allow people to move and to work. There will be no checks on the Border - I do not know how many times I have to say that - unless the British Government decides to go back on everything it has committed to.
It has signed up to a protocol and it has said it will implement that protocol. It is an international agreement with the EU and there is no suggestion, despite the fact there is a difference of approach in these negotiations on the future relationship, that there is any rowing back on a willingness to take on board the legal obligations that go with that protocol. People who are working on both sides of the Border and moving every day, students who are doing likewise, people who are visiting the doctor and people who are going to shop will be able to continue to do that, even after this transition period. That is what the protocol is all about. It is to make sure we do not have the political and social consequences of an attempt to reimpose a physical border between North and South and between South and North. In many ways, that was what held up a Brexit agreement for months, as Deputy Harkin will know from her time in the European Parliament as well as in this House. It became an international discussion, not just an Irish and a British discussion.
I want to try to give Members reassurance on that, but that said, if we do not manage to get agreement on level playing field issues and on facilitating tariff-free and quote-free trade, we will have a much more complex east-west trading relationship between Ireland and Britain. Let us not forget that in a normal year, when we are not dealing with the consequences of Covid-19, that is worth more than €60 billion in trade both ways. That is more than €1 billion per week and that trade is responsible for employing about 200,000 people on this side of the Irish Sea. That is what we are trying to protect here. Many of the issues North-South and in the Border counties are comprehensively dealt with in that Northern Irish-Irish protocol and we have to focus on full implementation of that protocol, whether there is a deal or there is no deal towards the end of the year, to deal with the all-island questions.
The hardest hit sectors, with Brexit looming, will be the fishing and agriculture industries. With the huge impact Brexit will have on agriculture, Ireland needs to oppose the South American Mercosur trade deal. It will have to come off the table completely. Will our Government oppose the Mercosur trade deal? When Brexit negotiations end, will Irish fishing trawlers have to move away from British waters and what is planned for these fishermen if this is to happen? If European fishing trawlers must leave UK waters, the worry is that they will move into overfished Irish waters. Are safety measures being put in place for Irish fishing waters so that this will not happen?
As somebody who has spent a lot of time with fishermen and farmers and those working in both sectors in the broader food industry, I agree that these are two vulnerable sectors if we cannot get the kind of Brexit deal we are looking for. There is no question about that. That is why, when we put contingency plans in place for a no-deal Brexit, these sectors were a big focus for us, along with tourism and hospitality. In many ways, the no-deal Brexit preparations we had put in place were of some assistance in the context of trying to put contingency measures in place to respond to Covid-19 and its impact on these sectors. Having said that, there is no question but that more support will be needed if we cannot get the kind of Brexit deal we will try to negotiate for.
If we lose our access into British waters, as an Irish fleet and as part of the EU fleet, it is not only the loss of those fishing opportunities in British waters that are a concern in the fishing sector but there is also a concern around the potential to shift effort from British waters into Irish waters in the context of other EU fleets. I have spoken to Michel Barnier directly about this particular issue because we need to think about it to ensure Ireland is not hit with a double negative.
For now, however, our focus is to try to negotiate the best deal possible for the EU and Ireland in the context of fishing, quota share, access to UK waters, accepting UK access to EU waters and trying to ensure that we manage stocks in a responsible way. The idea that one can easily impose hard borders at sea is nonsense, to be honest, because fish grow and mature and travel across those borders, particularly in the case of mackerel off the west coast, north-west coast and the waters west of Scotland. We must find a way of getting an agreed position and an understanding between the UK and the EU on fishing that protects our industry and our fish stocks. That will be high on the agenda.
Regarding the Mercosur deal, the Taoiseach stated in the past that we are going to assess the potential economic impact of that deal before we make a final decision on it. I assure the Deputy we will be making decisions that are in the best interests of Ireland through that process.
I have four questions for the Tánaiste. The first is about the level playing field. Take the example of the dairy sector and the processing on both sides of the Border, which works very efficiently because of the different timetables of production. We rely on the highest European standards to maintain our exports of baby milk formula and so forth to many countries. If there is any slippage there, how does the Tánaiste propose to deal with it? Is there a crisis plan in place? Without those high standards, some of our exports will be in trouble.
My second question is on the UK landbridge. The Tánaiste has spoken about this previously and he has discussed it with Michel Barnier. It is absolutely vital. What plans are in place to ensure that this continues to function seamlessly?
My third question relates to a recent study carried out by UCD which shows that incomes will be down by €600 million in 2020 in the agriculture and food production sector. That is before Brexit occurs. What special measures is the Tánaiste considering putting in place as a safety net for the industry post Brexit?
My next question is also on agriculture and relates to the sheep trade. We know we must maintain access to the French and European markets. How can we guarantee that the UK will not use Ireland as a back door to access the French market?
The level playing field conditions obviously apply in terms of GB and Northern Ireland. In the context of the protocol where there effectively is no request for any form of border infrastructure or checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that means food production in Northern Ireland must operate to the same standards as those in the Republic of Ireland. Otherwise one is creating a skewed market which producers here will be unable to stand over in respect of exports. Take the example of Lakeland Dairies. Almost 40% of its milk comes from Northern Ireland so we must maintain those standards and if we are going to sell that product across the EU as an EU product, those standards must be the same. That is understood.
On the broader level playing field issues in the context of the UK as a whole, that is a challenge for these negotiations. At present the UK is saying, "Forget it. We are not getting into a debate with you on a level playing field across all these sectors and an overarching governance infrastructure to ensure it is maintained". It is effectively refusing to engage on that and at the same time asking for facilitation in a trade deal.
That is why the two rounds of negotiations so far have essentially got nowhere. Let us wait to see whether that approach changes somewhat next week. I hope it will because the UK, Ireland and the rest of the EU could do with having some positivity and certainty come out of these negotiations given the pressures so many business are under in the Covid-19 environment. Whether that will change the politics of brinksmanship, I am not sure, but I hope it will.
It is important to state the UK has really been quite helpful regarding the land bridge. EU countries through which we gain access to the rest of the EU Single Market have also been very helpful. The UK has been willing to sign up to the international transport convention, which essentially allows us to seal a container in Dublin and drive it across the UK and on to France, the Netherlands or elsewhere without having to break the seal. In theory, at least, that is how it is supposed to work. The challenges, of course, will be associated with traffic jams or congestion on the Dover–Calais route, in particular. Trucks that have come from Ireland will end up getting caught in British haulier traffic if there are many checks required on the crossing, which is incredibly busy. Many are very concerned about that. They would be right to be concerned because the infrastructure required is simply not in place to facilitate significant customs, sanitary and phytosanitary checks. We have worked with the shipping sector to ensure sufficient capacity to switch some of the traffic that would have used the land bridge in the past, giving it direct ferry routes to France, Rotterdam and elsewhere. The most efficient and fastest way to get product to Ireland is undoubtedly using the UK as a land bridge. We will seek to continue to use it as best we can.
Incomes are down in agriculture, and this is linked to demand, confidence and market restrictions as a result of Covid-19. This is absolutely the case. Consider the example of fishing. Our biggest markets for Irish fish are France, the UK, Spain, Italy and China. When one thinks about how those countries have been impacted by Covid-19, one will begin to realise why there is such a challenge ahead for us in terms of rebuilding those markets. It is a little different for agriculture but not that different. Of course, we are considering how we can support these sectors to try to nurse them through this crisis and have them stronger on the other side.
I thank all the Deputies for their contributions and questions. Very clearly, Brexit remains a key issue for this Government and House, even as we face the challenges of Covid-19. In responding to Brexit, the Government has faced this tough task with welcome support from this House on priority issues that have been at the centre of our strategy. The solidarity and support shown by all sides in the debate here at home, not just today but up to this point, have been important in addressing our Brexit challenges. Although we may differ occasionally on matters of approach or emphasis, which is only natural, the priorities we have pursued have been supported across both Houses. For our part, we will continue to work closely with parties and other stakeholders as this work proceeds and as long as we are in a position to do so. At the same time, Ireland will face these challenges with the mutual solidarity and support of our EU partners and with all the strengths EU membership brings.
To confirm and reiterate what the Tánaiste has outlined, I can state from continuously engaging with my own European colleagues that solidarity remains strong. We remain fully committed to making sure that Ireland's interests will be protected and advanced in negotiations on the EU–UK future relationship.
Equally, it is important that, over the transition period, we see the full implementation of the withdrawal agreement and the protocol. This, as many Deputies have outlined, is not negotiable. It has already been negotiated and is legally underpinned. This is key to protecting citizens and to ensuring peace and stability in Northern Ireland. It also plays a vital role in protecting the Single Market and Ireland's place in it. The link between implementation and the future partnership negotiation is very clear. The protocol must be operational at the end of the transition period. It is critical, therefore, that work move forward to put practical operational arrangements in place to implement the protocol. Again, we have seen how long it has taken us to put our own measures in place at our ports and airports.
Clarity on this work is particularly important to give reassurance and certainty, especially to people and businesses in Northern Ireland but also across the entire island.
The Government continues to work closely with our EU partners to ensure that our collective approach to these negotiations reflects our values and interests, but we also continue to engage with key figures and interlocutors on Brexit issues within the UK. Officials from across the Government are continuing their work to make sure that Ireland's voice is at the heart of the future relationship negotiations that work between the EU and the UK to implement the protocol is taken forward and to ensure that, domestically, Ireland is prepared for the end of the transition period.
As we know, time is tight. With less than seven months to the end of the transition period, our work will undoubtedly intensify in the period ahead. We remain committed to doing everything in our power to ensure the Government, citizens and businesses are as ready as we can be before the end of the transition. As the Tánaiste alluded to, and as I made reference to this morning in the stakeholder forum, the structures for engagement that were put in place between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of the Taoiseach are still in place and that will continue, irrespective of who is in what Ministry or what Government is in place.
On the positive side, we have in place the withdrawal agreement. The issue of Northern Ireland has been agreed in the protocol. The Government's preparedness work will be closely aligned with progress on the negotiations and will evolve as elements of the deal become clearer. As the talks progress, we will roll out communications programmes covering specific areas. As before, Departments and agencies will continue to engage with key stakeholders, taking into account the significant challenges businesses, individuals and sectors currently face with Covid-19.
As the Tánaiste mentioned earlier, whatever the outcome of Brexit negotiations between the EU and the UK, the status quowill not remain. As we have always said, Brexit will bring significant change. It is important that Ireland is ready. The Government stands ready and has continued to work to make sure that Ireland as a whole is prepared.