MoS McEntee remarks on Withdrawal of the UK from the EU Bill 2019 to Seanad
Speech12 March 2019
Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union
(Consequential Provisions) Bill 2019
Seanad Second Stage – 12 March 2019 Opening Remarks
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Brexit poses an unprecedented challenge for Ireland. The ongoing uncertainty we are facing only serves to increase the scale of this challenge, as we prepare for several possible outcomes.
The potential impact of a no deal Brexit on Ireland would be severe. Negative impacts would be felt across a range of sectors of the economy, across our regions and by our consumers, farmers and fishermen. Our preparations, including through our legislative proposals, are focussed on minimising these impacts.
Our focus remains on ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, that has been agreed between the EU and the UK - this remains the best way to ensure an orderly UK exit.
It would also allow us to move on to start work on the agreement that will frame our future relationship. The Withdrawal Agreement gets us to that next phase in the best way possible.
Managing a no deal Brexit would be an exercise in damage limitation. It would be impossible in a no deal scenario to maintain the current seamless arrangements between the EU and UK across the range of sectors which are, at the moment, facilitated by our common EU membership.
Comprehensive, cross-Government preparations were set out in the Government’s Contingency Action Plan, published in December. This work continues on a daily basis at both national and EU level. All Departments have sector- specific plans in place. These address key challenges arising from a no deal Brexit, and associated mitigation efforts.
They include a range of measures such as the recruitment of customs and SPS officials, preparations at our ports and airports, and a range of financial and advisory supports for businesses to help them to prepare for Brexit.
Our work at national level goes in tandem with the significant work underway across the EU to prepare for the UK’s possible departure without a deal on the 29 March.
A no deal scenario would be a lose, lose, lose for the people of the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the European Union. The only place that can prevent this from happening is Westminster.
In the context of tonight’s vote in Westminster, the outcome of last night’s meeting in Strasbourg between President Juncker and Prime Minister May is positive - it is our hope that the Withdrawal Agreement will now be endorsed by the House of Commons.
Ireland has insisted that the Withdrawal Agreement could not be rewritten, and that the backstop arrangement, while intended to be temporary, must continue to apply unless and until it is replaced by future arrangements that can achieve the same objective, namely no hard border.
However, we have always said that we were willing to offer guarantees and further assurances to the UK – indeed, we have offered such insurances on a number of occasions.
The Instrument agreed yesterday puts those assurances on a legal footing and represents an unambiguous statement from both parties of what has been agreed.
It does not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement.
It does not undermine the backstop or its application.
What it does is say that we will work together, in good faith, in pursuit of a future relationship that ensures the objectives of the Protocol, particularly the need to avoid a hard border, are met.
Brexit will bring real changes for all of us. The Government has been working hard to ensure that Ireland is ready for the changes and challenges that Brexit brings. We continue to seek to mitigate, as far as possible, these impacts.
With the impending approach of the Brexit deadline, we have had no choice in recent weeks but to ramp up our no deal preparations, including bringing legislation before the Oireachtas.
When the Government published this no deal Brexit legislation on 22nd February, the Tánaiste said he hoped that it would do no more than sit on the shelf of his office. That was and is my firm hope too. That said, given the ongoing uncertainty, we need to have this legislation in place.
The enactment of the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union
(Consequential Provisions) Bill has been given the highest priority by the Government and Oireachtas. The cooperation of all sides in the Oireachtas to work together to ensure that this legislation is in place before 29 March is appreciated, and clearly demonstrates the unity of purpose in our Parliament in our approach to Brexit. The Bill completed all stages in the Dail on Wednesday 6 March following a good and substantive discussions of all Parts of the Bill. I want to put on record my appreciation of the cooperation of the Seanad in taking all stages of the Bill this week. This will ensure that there is sufficient time for Presidential signature and other commencement measures, as well as enabling us to put in place the necessary Statutory Instruments envisaged by the legislation.
This Bill covers, in primary legislation, the issues that need to be addressed immediately in the event of a no deal Brexit, ensuring that key measures and protections are in place. It focuses on protecting our citizens and supporting the economy, enterprise and jobs, particularly in key economic sectors.
The Bill forms part of the extensive preparations that are underway across Government and across the EU.
At EU level, twelve separate legislative proposals have been made as part of Brexit contingency preparations. They range from aviation connectivity to road freight connectivity, from dual-use goods to fishing authorisations. Ireland has engaged on the detail of what is proposed at EU level on contingency to ensure that our concerns are reflected in proposals being taken forward at EU level.
Measures included in the Bill
Given the emergency nature of this legislation, the Government took the decision that progressing this through the Houses as an omnibus Bill was the most practical and sensible way to ensure that we have the necessary legislation enacted before 29 March.
The Bill contains 15 parts, addressing issues which require immediate primary legislation in a no deal scenario. These have been identified following a detailed screening by all Departments of legislation currently in force.
I should add that a range of issues will also be addressed by statutory instrument before 29 March. This work on statutory legislation is being taken forward by all Departments and co-ordinated by the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs.
While the Bill is primarily about preparations for a no deal Brexit one measure, Part 15, deals with a time sensitive issue that would arise should the Withdrawal Agreement be ratified. This Bill will make provision in domestic law for a transition period during which EU rules and regulations will continue to apply to the UK, even though it will be formally a third country.
This transition period effectively maintains the status quo up to December 2020. It will allow for the negotiation of an agreement on the future relationship between the EU and the UK, and provide certainty to citizens and business, as we continue our preparations for the new relationship with UK outside the EU. The remainder of the Bill covers the areas in legislation that require immediate change in a no deal scenario.
Common Travel Area
Protecting and maintaining the Common Travel Area and the associated rights and privileges is a key part of our planning and preparations. This is vital in the context of the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Peace Process, as well as for broader Ireland-UK relations. The Bill, therefore, includes measures to underpin the Common Travel Area (CTA), to ensure that the associated rights and entitlements of Irish and British citizens under this longstanding arrangement, will continue in any circumstance.
In the area of health services, the Bill provides continuity for a range of existing healthcare arrangements between Ireland and the UK, once the UK leaves the EU. The Minister for Health will be provided with the power to make regulations in a number of matters, including to enable persons from Ireland to access healthcare in the UK. This seeks to ensure that insofar as possible there is minimum disruption to health services and that essential services are maintained on a cross-border, all-island, and Ireland-UK basis.
In the area of social protection, the Bill provides for the continued payment of a range of benefits, including old age pensions, illness benefits and child benefit. It ensures the recognition of contributions made when working in the UK, and access social insurance payments. It is important that we ensure a seamless transition and existing payments are protected and maintained. The Bill also provide protection for workers whose UK-based employer becomes insolvent.
In the area of higher education, the Bill protects the continued mobility of students under the Common Travel Area. It will allow for SUSI grants to be paid to eligible Irish students studying in the UK, as well as to UK students in Irish higher education institutions. This provides certainty for Irish students studying, or considering studying, in the UK, and for UK students in Ireland. These measures protect and enhance the long-standing excellent cooperation and collaboration between higher education systems in Ireland and the UK.
Having taken on board a Fianna Fail amendment in the Dail this Part of the Bill also now facilitates the continuation of the free fees initiative for 3rd level students. It does this by ensuring that periods of UK residency and being a UK citizen count for eligibility for a student accessing the initiative.
The Government is determined to maintain the strong cooperation with the UK in the area of law enforcement, particularly regarding Northern Ireland. The Bill includes provisions to ensure that justice and security cooperation with the UK, as a third country, can continue.
It puts in place measures to apply the 1957 Council of Europe Convention on Extradition to the UK. This will ensure workable extradition arrangements are in place between ourselves and the UK. It also makes amendments to the Immigration Acts, which might otherwise expose the State to the risk that removals would unsuccessful and undermine existing arrangements.
From the outset, the Government has made it a priority to minimise the impact of Brexit on North-South cooperation, and the all-island economy. The Bill address sectors where major challenges associated with a no deal Brexit have been identified, including all-island transport, and energy.
Provisions in transport will, on a precautionary basis, where other international measures are not agreed, protect cross border bus services, ensuring continued service provision for passengers and commuters on the island of Ireland. This covers compatibility with EU rules that govern services between a member State and a third country.
The Bill enables the Energy Regulator to address possible issues arising from a no deal Brexit, to maintain the operation of the Single Electricity Market. Amendments to this Part were agreed in the Dáil providing a basis for re-certification of companies and individuals working in the F-Gas sector in circumstances where the UK leaves with no deal on 29 March.
The Bill also covers tax measures that seek to minimise the disruption to business operating cross-border in the immediate aftermath of a no deal Brexit. In relation to Capital Acquisition Tax the Bill provides continuity in existing treatment that landowners who operate cross-border will not be disadvantaged. On Corporation Tax, the Bill maintains current practice for tax treatment of certain transaction or corporate group structures.
The Part on taxation also now includes a number of measures relating to Excise and the VAT Retail Export Scheme. In practice, these measures give the Minister for Finance discretion to take a number of steps to control and minimise the scope for abuse of the VAT Retail Export Scheme. In respect of Duty Free, the proposed measure is also a precautionary one that will be subject to activation by commencement order.
The Government, and the Commission, has paid particular attention to the impact of Brexit on Irish business in its contingency planning.
Businesses and other affected areas need to respond and prepare themselves, and the Government is providing an array of supports and information measures to assist them.
The Bill will now give Enterprise Ireland additional enabling power to further support businesses through widened investment, loans and RD&I grants. This is to further assist Irish businesses in remaining competitive and resilient in a no deal Brexit context. This will maximise our capacity to support businesses in the face of what could be a difficult transition.
The Bill also provides continuity for Financial Services, while the Irish market transitions to a new Central Securities Depository provider. Other measures provide for a temporary run-off regime to protect Irish policyholders from continuity issues with their insurance contracts in the event of a no deal Brexit.
Finally, the Bill includes provisions to introduce postponed accounting for VAT purposes in a no deal scenario. This will alleviate the impact of potential cash-flow burden faced by businesses post-Brexit. This is a practical measure which will support businesses, and was an issue highlighted by industry.
In conclusion, let me say that the Government is determined to ensure that Britain and Ireland build and maintain our strong and special relationship. We are working together to develop that relationship, and build new structures to do so, even as the debate on Brexit continues. As the Taoiseach said this morning, we should give MPs in Westminster the time and space to consider what’s now on the table.
But I say it again, Ireland’s future is European. As Minister for European Affairs I am determined, along with the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, to build and develop Ireland’s future as an active and committed member of the EU, and its Single Market and Customs Union.
There is no greater demonstration of the benefits of EU membership to a country like Ireland, than the unity and solidarity shown by our EU partners in the face of the UK’s withdrawal.
12 March 2019