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Dáil Statement on Recent Developments on Brexit

Dáil Statement on Recent Developments on Brexit
18 September 2019
Tánaiste's Opening Statement

 
Ceann Comhairle,
 
I am grateful for this opportunity to again brief the Dáil on developments on Brexit. There have been significant shifts in British politics over the summer impacting on Brexit. But before focusing on developments, it is worth recalling the priorities which have shaped the Government's approach to Brexit negotiations from the outset.

These were the need to protect the Northern Ireland Peace Process; maintaining the Common Travel Area; minimising the impact on trade and the economy; influencing the future of the European Union and maintaining a strong Ireland-UK relationship. 

Throughout this process, we have maintained a remarkably consistent approach and have worked with a broad range of stakeholders, at home and across the EU, to minimise the impacts for our citizens and businesses as much as possible.

It remains the case that Brexit presents a unique and unprecedented challenge for Ireland. Its impact, particularly in the case of no deal, will be considerable.

 
State of Play EU-UK Talks
 
Turning now to the state of play in the EU-UK talks. In December 2018, the EU and UK agreed a Withdrawal Agreement and a political declaration.  As it stands, the best way to ensure an orderly Brexit remains through the Withdrawal Agreement.

The Withdrawal Agreement, is a fair and balanced outcome that addresses the key concerns of both sides. It also allows us to move on to building the strongest possible future relationship with the UK after its departure.

Despite what we are hearing from London and elsewhere, the EU has demonstrated a significant degree of flexibility and compromise to date.  We also always negotiated in good faith.

Prime Minister Johnson has stated that he is seriously looking for a deal, given his firm determination to leave the EU on 31 October. 

His visit to Dublin last week was helpful, as was his meeting earlier this week with President Juncker. We welcome the intensification of discussions between the European Commission and the UK.

However, meetings are not enough, the UK must match their stated aspirations with actions.  It is now vital that the UK side bring forward proposals for the EU side to consider. The UK have communicated their wish to remove the backstop, but have made no concrete proposals on how to replace it in order to achieve the same outcomes, with the same legal certainty. 

Ireland, and our EU partners, stand by the Withdrawal Agreement.  However, we are also committed to finding a way forward.   We want to be helpful.  We are willing to consider proposals that might break the impasse – so long as they provide the same operational and legal protections as the backstop.  Ireland cannot move away from an agreed negotiated position to an unknown and untested solution – that is simply a non-starter.

This approach is fully supported by our EU partners and it is important to recall that the backstop has had the support of a cross-community majority of the people of Northern Ireland since it was negotiated.

 
The Government continues to maintain close contact with the Commission, and with our EU partners. I have had the opportunity over the last few weeks to speak with Michel Barnier, and meet with EU colleagues, to reflect on where things are going.  The unity of the EU27 remains fully intact.

We continue also to engage with the UK.  As well as the Taoiseach's meeting with Prime Minister Johnson, I have, over recent weeks, met with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and Northern Secretary Julian Smith, as well as with Michael Gove. While we have plenty to discuss, we are very clear with our UK counterparts that Brexit negotiations cannot be bilateralised and must be conducted with the Commission.

The Border
Much of the focus of the debate, particularly in the House of Commons, has been on the backstop.

A key priority for Ireland, shared by our EU partners, has been the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement, and to protect the EU's Single Market and Ireland's place it.  

 In December 2017, the EU and the UK set out their shared understanding of what needed to be addressed regarding the border, and made commitments in how to address that. This was the basis for the backstop, contained within the Withdrawal Agreement, recognising the importance of avoiding a hard border to the protection of the Good Friday Agreement, and the UK's red lines. It followed the intensive mapping of North South cooperation and months of detailed forensic negotiations on isolating only the elements of the single market and customs union necessary to avoid a hard border.
 
The backstop is the only viable solution on the table that avoids any physical infrastructure and related checks and controls, fully protects the Good Friday Agreement and North-South cooperation, and preserves the all-island economy, as well the integrity of the EU Single Market and Ireland's place in it. No one has yet come up with any alternatives aimed at avoiding a hard border that match what is safeguarded by the backstop.

This is far more than an economic issue. It is a guarantee that there is a clear plan and commitment to engage temporary, minimal measures to preserve the delicate balance of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process, if needed.  The European Union, set stable, predictable, foundations for trade in goods and services, for freedom of movement, for questions of equality and of rights, of citizenship and identity, for cultural and educational exchanges and for cross-border cooperation on this island.

Many areas of North-South cooperation expressly rely on our common EU framework, the avoidance of a hard border, including related customs or regulatory checks and controls.

 
In areas from agriculture, environment, transport, to health, education and tourism - cross-border cooperation and community ties will be undermined by a no deal Brexit, or by any approach that does not have the level of safeguards and protections provided by the backstop.

The idea of an all-island SPS area has been floated.  The alignment of SPS rules should form part of any solution, but would clearly not be enough by itself.  Agreeing to this limited approach would have considerable negative impacts on life on both sides of the border, without the additional regulatory alignment provided for by the Protocol.

This is why the backstop remains an absolutely necessary part of the Withdrawal Agreement, and why the UK proposal to completely abolish the backstop is totally unacceptable - to both Ireland and the EU.

As Michel Barnier stated in Brussels last week, the EU remains firm on its three core objectives, of (i) avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland; (ii) preserving the integrity of the EU single market; and (iii) protecting North-South cooperation and the all-island economy.

It is deeply disappointing that the British Government have decided now to step back from their commitments of December 2017.  Equally, their stance on the future relationship, their wish to diverge from the EU, and rejection of level-playing field issues, makes things more problematic.

We do not want a no deal outcome, but neither can we afford to take the chance on undermining the Good Friday Agreement or put ourselves in a position where our place in the Single Market is jeopardised by unproven solutions or future promises.

As we have said all along, the backstop is an insurance policy. We have no intention or wish to trap the UK into any arrangement against its will.

No Deal Border

As I have made clear on many occasions, in the absence of a Withdrawal Agreement there are no easy solutions. Ireland is working closely with the European Commission to address our shared twin objectives of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, and protecting the Single Market and Ireland's place in it.  These are looking at interim arrangements we would need to put in place in the event of no deal, which do not involve physical infrastructure at the border.

These are highly politically sensitive and technically complex issues, and more precise details will not be available until discussions with the Commission reach a conclusion.

The goal is to reach an outcome with the Commission which enables us to provide reassurance to Member States that Ireland is taking sufficient steps to protect the integrity of the Single Market, thus protecting our position within it.

I have to be clear, any arrangements for the border in a no deal scenario will be temporary. They cannot provide the same level of protection as the backstop, and will result in significant disruption for Northern Ireland and the all island economy. Only the backstop can fully protect the Single Market, avoid a hard border and protect the all-island economy.

A no deal Brexit will unavoidably mean far-reaching change on the island of Ireland. North-South trade would no longer be as frictionless as it is today. Tariffs would apply. And the impact of customs and SPS requirements and associated checks, necessary to protect Ireland's place in the Single Market, would be significant to the operation of the all-island economy.

The need to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process remains central, deal or no deal. I must also be clear that the the concerns of everyone in Northern Ireland - of all communities and backgrounds, who are deeply anxious about the impact of Brexit - matter to this Government: unionist, nationalist and those who identify as neither.  As the Taoiseach made clear to Prime Minister Johnson, it remains the position that the issue of protecting the Good Friday Agreement, including the issues around the border, will need to be resolved in advance of opening negotiations on the future EU-UK relationship.
 
Ceann Comhairle
 
Contingency Planning
A no deal outcome will never be Ireland's or the EU's choice.   Unfortunately, prudence means this is a scenario we must plan for.  We have been clear since the beginning that every form of Brexit has negative consequences, and a no deal Brexit most of all. 

The Government has been actively preparing for Brexit for more than two years to make sure that Irish citizens and businesses are as ready as possible for all scenarios.  This has the highest priority across Government, and involves every Government Department and key Agencies, in tandem with the EU.

Our consistent message has been that a no deal Brexit will have profound implications for Ireland on all levels. This is why we have:

·     Published two comprehensive Contingency Action Plans, setting out the impact of a no deal Brexit and the work being done to mitigate these risks;
·     Passed key legislation to protect our citizens and support the economy, enterprise and jobs, in key economic sectors.
·     Held over 1200 stakeholder preparedness events in all key sectors right across the country;
·     Provided training and financial supports to increase our customs capacity;
·     Included dedicated measures to get Ireland Brexit ready in Budgets 2017, 2018 and 2019.

We continue to implement the steps laid out in the July Contingency Action Plan update - steps to be taken between now and 31 October.

These measures are working. Take the example of Revenue's Trader Engagement Programme. Since July, Revenue has contacted approximately 92,000 businesses that traded with the UK in 2018; this has helped to foster a significant growth in the number of businesses taking the key step of registering for an EORI number.

Businesses registered for EORI numbers now represent 88% of the value of import trade, and 96% of the value of export trade with the UK in 2018.

This approach underlines why it is so important that exposed businesses in particular prepare for no deal. Many have, and we are working with those, mainly smaller, companies to ensure we are ready. To support businesses in this, we recently launched the 'Getting Your Business Brexit Ready – Practical Steps' campaign which focuses on the 9 steps every business – large and small - should take now to help prepare for Brexit. 

At this week's Ploughing Championships a dedicated Brexit Hub has been engaging with business and citizens on steps they can take. I saw it in action earlier today and I was encouraged by the level of activity and people's awareness of the issues they need to prepare for.

Funding supports for businesses have been an important pillar of the Government's preparations for Brexit and dedicated measures have been made available over the last three budgets. Budget 2019 included the introduction of the Future Growth Loan Scheme, with €300 million to support strategic capital investment for a post-Brexit environment, and over €450m in supports in previous budgets.

Budget 2020 will be based on the assumption of a no deal Brexit. In that context, the Government is looking at provision for timely, targeted, temporary measures for the sectors most exposed. The Government is prepared for a no-deal Brexit and stands ready to support the economy in such a scenario.

We welcome the publication of the Commission's Brexit Preparedness Communication, at the start of this month, including proposals to roll over the timelines for existing contingency measures in certain key areas, including on air connectivity and international road haulage.

The proposal to extend EU-level financial supports in a no deal to support Member States and affected workers is also welcome.  

At the same time, our work on securing the Landbridge is continuing. This will remain a strategically important link for Ireland in order to get our products to the Single Market.

But Brexit unavoidably means that the way operators use the Landbridge will change. Physical capacity at our ports and airports has been enhanced and additional staff recruited.  We are also working with our European partners to clarify their plans for the operation of the Landbridge at their ports.  Despite this, as we have said in the Action Plan, it is likely that there will be initial delays at ports in the early weeks.

 
Ceann Comhairle,
 
Conclusion
Finally, I would again like to state how much we appreciate the support and advice received from all sides of the House on this issue. We will continue to keep the House fully informed of developments on this matter, which have far-reaching implications for all of us.

We regret the UK's decision to leave, and believe that both parties will be diminished as a result. However, the fact remains that the UK is due to leave the European Union. The Government will continue to represent and protect the interests of Ireland.  It is for London to decide on what it intends to do next.

Time is very short, but I believe that there is still time enough for sensible solutions. And this Government will continue to engage in good faith to find a way forward.

But regardless of the outcome, Brexit will, come what may, bring real and significant change for all of us. We continue to prepare, but are doing so with the confidence of an active and committed member of the EU.  Our biggest contingency remains our ongoing EU membership and all the support and security that brings.

ENDS.

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