Seanad debates

Monday, 29 March 2021

Matters Arising from the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU: Statements


10:30 am

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Cathaoirleach. I am pleased to be back in the Seanad this evening. The ongoing engagement of Senators is very welcome on what remains an issue of vital importance for businesses and citizens on the island of Ireland.

Since my last appearance before the Senators, we have seen the successful conclusion of EU-UK negotiations on a future relationship and the end of the transition period. Securing the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, TCA, together with the withdrawal agreement, including the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, means that Ireland's key Brexit objectives have been achieved.

The TCA puts in place the platform that facilitates a new phase of co-operation with the UK on a wide range of areas. We look forward to the final steps in its ratification being concluded as soon as possible and welcome the further certainty that this will provide. When ratification is complete, we expect that the work of the TCA's joint bodies responsible for implementing the technical detail of EU-UK co-operation will begin in earnest.

As we have throughout the Brexit process, Ireland will continue to do everything we can to build a strong EU-UK relationship. I have made our support and ambitions in this regard very clear time and time again.

No agreement could every replace our shared membership of the EU but the TCA avoids the most serious consequences that a no-deal outcome would have brought, including tariffs and quotas.

I understand the disappointment felt by our fishing communities over the new fishing arrangements. As the House knows, that was one of the most difficult and hardest-fought elements of the negotiations.

The Government is working to support the sector and the coastal communities that depend on it. The Taoiseach, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, and I remain actively engaged with the Commission - exploring options and seeking constructive solutions on how best to address the disproportionate allocation of pain in this area and to restore balance quickly to member states' fisheries quota shares.

Even with the TCA in place, the end of the Brexit transition period brought about the largest change in EU-UK relations in almost 50 years. The new reality, with the UK outside the seamless trading environment of the EU Single Market and customs union, is that additional formalities apply to trade with Great Britain. These formalities take time, and require additional administration. At the same time, because of the protocol there are no new checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Ireland or the rest of the EU in either direction.

We said there would be challenges and that it would take time to adapt to the new realities of Brexit. Preparations have been undertaken by our importers, exporters, hauliers, logistics companies and ferry companies to ensure that they can continue to move their goods, secure their supply chains and find new routes to market.Trader familiarity with the new formalities is improving by the week. The percentage of movements receiving a green routing, which is to immediately leave the port on arrival, has increased from an average of 50% in the first two weeks of the year to more than 80% now.

Departments and agencies are pulling out all the stops to help. Assistance for traders remains available on a 24-7 basis. Our financial advisory and upskilling supports are also still available. I pay particular tribute to the Revenue Commissioners for working incredibly hard in this space with traders.

Over recent decades our trading patterns have diversified but the UK remains a key trading partner for Ireland, especially for the food and drinks sector and for our SMEs. Ireland has an almost €80 billion trading relationship across the Irish Sea. The CSO trade data for January 2021 shows that imports from Great Britain were down 65% on the same period last year and exports were down 14%. Trade flows with other parties were also down, but not as significantly as those numbers.

While a number of unique dynamics were at play in January such as the end of the Brexit transition period, pre-Brexit stockpiling, and the effects of the Covid-19, there is no doubt that Brexit will have longer-term structural impacts on trade with our closest neighbour. Further time and data will be required before we can draw any firm conclusions on post-Brexit trade patterns and supply chain changes. We continue to monitor developments closely to ensure we are in a position to assist and adapt as we seek to have a strong trading relationship with the UK. Of course, the Government also remains committed to developing new markets for Irish traders. In line with our ambitious Global Ireland initiative, we will open new embassies this year in Ukraine, Morocco, and the Philippines, and a new consulate in Manchester.

It is important we all realise that Brexit is not over. Further waves of Brexit-related change and disruption arising from new UK import controls are coming later this year. This will impact businesses exporting food and agricultural goods to Great Britain. The UK recently deferred the introduction of these controls by six months. It is vital that exporters capitalise on this extra time to prepare as these challenges will be significant.

Our EU membership is essential to addressing the challenges of Brexit. We will continue to enjoy access to the EU Single Market of 450 million people and we can count on support and assistance from our EU partners. Last July, EU leaders agreed to establish a Brexit adjustment reserve to assist the most affected member states and sectors. Ireland can expect to receive a substantial allocation from this €1 billion reserve. Negotiations to finalise our allocation continue and we are pressing for these discussions to conclude quickly so that funding can flow to where it is needed, for example to sectors such as the fisheries sector, which need assistance now.

I now turn to the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. This Government engaged throughout the Brexit process in ensuring that the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland fully taken into account and sensitively addressed. We will continue to be proactive and pragmatic in our approach. The protocol safeguards the Good Friday Agreement, avoids a hard border on the island, and protects the Single Market and Ireland's place it. What we must deliver now is its full and effective implementation, giving people and businesses across the island much needed clarity and certainty going forward. We need to give Northern Irish business the space to benefit from the unique opportunity of open access to both the EU Single Market of almost 500 million consumers as well as the British market.

We recognise the challenges Brexit itself has brought for the whole island of Ireland. I am in ongoing and often daily contact with politicians and representative groups for business and civil society across the island, and in particular in Northern Ireland, to listen to their concerns and understand and explore possible solutions together with them. Opportunities exist to reduce many of the burdens arising from Brexit, for example an EU-UK sanitary and phytosanitary agreement could remove the need for many of the checks and controls on agrifood products, if the UK were to decide go down that route.Either party imposing its own will unilaterally will certainly not work. The UK's unilateral actions needlessly damage trust with the EU. Agreements must be upheld and respected. Where actions are taken contrary to the terms of the protocol, a negotiated international agreement, it can be no surprise that legal action ensues, with all that that entails. This is not a space for solo runs, no matter the intent or substance of those actions. For solutions to be effective and sustainable, they must be joint solutions. There is a clear framework for engagement and decision-making that must be respected. Let us not forget that those structures were agreed by both sides only a few months ago.

I encourage the UK to take every opportunity to build trust and re-establish itself as a credible partner for the EU. It is essential that the structures established under the withdrawal agreement are used to resolve existing challenges. We are committed to doing that and to showing the flexibility and pragmatism that may be necessary to resolve outstanding issues that people may have. I am pleased that a specialised committee on the protocol took place last Friday, 26 March, and work continues towards a meeting of a joint committee in the hopefully not too distant future. Agreement on a roadmap towards full compliance with the protocol is a key focus of this process. I acknowledge the positive role being played by the Vice-President of the European Commission, Maroš Šefovi, his sustained willingness to find solutions and his continued engagement with a wide range of stakeholders on this island. It has been really impressive and he continues to show that commitment.

We will continue to do all that we can to ensure stability and certainty in the operation of the protocol, to encourage and sustain a positive working EU-UK relationship and to ensure that the protocol works in the interests of people across the island. This has been a difficult number of weeks since the start of the year with regard to the protocol. It is unfortunate that the implementation of the protocol and related issues have been a source of tension and polarisation with regard to political opinion in Northern Ireland. We all have an obligation to work to try to reduce those tensions and to rebuild trust and good relations. We can only do that by implementing what has already been agreed and complying with what is now international law, and also by looking in a pragmatic and flexible way at how the implementation can be adapted to recognise frustrations and real difficulties when they occur. I believe all of that is possible but it has to happen with people working together, not acting unilaterally.


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