I welcome the opportunity to make a statement on Brexit. I listened to the various Opposition speakers since 7.30 p.m. or so, and it is interesting to hear the various different opinions out there. I suppose nobody expected of the guidelines, following the negotiations and consultations that we have had over the past number of months with our colleagues in the European Union and the meetings we had in the UK, and what happened when the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, triggered Article 50 when she asked her ambassador to go to the President of the Council, Mr. Donald Tusk, that we would have a paragraph in them. In all the guidelines that were published, everything that we had discussed and brought up, and the concerns, were included. That is testimony to what the Government has been doing over the past number of months.
The result last June was not the result we wanted. We wanted the UK to remain in the European Union but, unfortunately, it voted to opt out. I suppose, of all the countries in the European Union, the Government was more prepared than any other country. Why? The answer is because we had more to lose than any other country.
The unique relationship that exists between the UK and Ireland is something special. The trade between our countries, with €1.2 billion worth of goods being traded each week, outlines that special relationship. That is why, I suppose, from our point of view, our focus on Brexit has been to minimise the impact on trade and the economy, and that has been an important focus in my Department as well. Both the Minister, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, and the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, and myself, and the management team meet every week in relation to Brexit and what our Department will do in this regard.
One of the most important issues was to protect the Northern peace process. Our colleagues across the way, Sinn Féin, have mentioned that. That has been a very important part of our negotiations, to talk to our colleagues in Europe in relation to the peace process and the important and significant role the peace process has played in developing the economic situation between both sides of the Border as well.
We are not going back to the days of a hard Border because hard borders create friction. They create obstacles to the way of peace and obstacles to the way of economic progress as well. We are very conscious of the important role the Border counties are playing here in this. We know how food crosses the Border, North and South, before it is fully processed. These are our concerns which we have relayed in all areas at our meetings with our European colleagues.
Both the Minister, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, and myself have travelled to various European countries to outline our concerns to our European partners. I visited Tallinn in Estonia on Monday last where I had a number of meetings with ministerial colleagues. They all are most understanding of the situation that exists between Ireland and the UK. I would compare it, as I said at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications and to other Ministers, to the relationship they had with the other Baltic countries. It was the same when I visited Budapest. We have got our message across.
When we are negotiating over the next two years, we will be negotiating from within the European Union because our future lies in the European Union. Ireland has come a long way since 1973, when we very much depended on trade with the UK. Today, approximately 40% of our trade is to the UK.
Trade between the UK and Ireland is extremely import and we will not neglect that. We want a soft Brexit. We want to continue the trade with the United Kingdom because it is our closest neighbour and because that trade is very important. Maintaining the common travel area is a priority for us as well.
That is why I say to all Members that our preparations have been extensive over the past 12 months. We have conducted significant planning in all sectors, my Department included, including consultations with all the stakeholders. We have had extensive engagements. As I said, at ministerial level, the Taoiseach took control of the campaign at an early stage. We all heard about the Brexit Ministers, but we all know that our Departments - the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, my Department, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, and various other Ministers when they travelled abroad had an important role to play. We have held extensive consultations at official levels as well. Our officials are travelling all the time to Europe to talk to their counterparts there. Our diplomats who are based in Europe have been doing their work as well. Over 400 meetings have taken place on this. What is included in the guidelines is the result of the hard work by the Government, our diplomatic team and the Ministers in preparation for Brexit.
As I said, we are a small island nation. We export 80% of everything we produce. Of course, the first port of call for any exporter is the UK; it is easy and it is English speaking. That is why the British market is so important to us.
On Enterprise Ireland and our agencies, we have funded them with resources for staff and have provided funding in supporting clients and sustaining and growing exports to the UK. It is also encouraging and supporting diversification to new markets outside of the UK.
Of course, the eurozone is an area that we are targeting and marketing in as well. Two weeks ago, I visited Antwerp with 15 Irish companies in the pharma-construction sector. I spoke to some of those companies - I had a Brexit meeting in Brussels before with all of those companies. I refer back to the survey, which some of the speakers referred to, that my Department carried out.
Many of the Irish companies that are exporting are growing businesses in the UK. They are signing contracts at the moment and they are not affected by what is happening. Deputy Ó Caoláin is correct in what he said about the food sector, which is vulnerable, in particular in the Border region, as he outlined. That is why we introduced measures in last year's budget to try to protect food producers. The reason the food sector is vulnerable is that margins are very low. In addition, there is concern about fluctuations in sterling, which has affected many companies as well, especially those on low margins. The currency fluctuation is not as bad as we thought it might be in that sterling is still hovering around 83 cent or 84 cent at the moment. We would be very concerned if it reached the 90 cent mark. However, that did not happen and even when Britain triggered Article 50, the currency did not fall. From that point of view, we have time to prepare.
Enterprise Ireland is talking to approximately 1,500 client companies that are exporting to the UK. Being competitive is so important for companies in the current challenging economic situation. Companies must be competitive because if they are not, they will evaporate because the standards in eastern European countries are beginning to rise and they are competitive. They have the knowledge as well. We must be innovative all the time, which is the reason we encourage companies to innovate.
Enterprise Ireland is encouraging companies to prepare for Brexit by improving competitiveness, investing in innovation and diversifying into new markets, which is also important. I have responsibility for local enterprise offices, LEOs, which are organising workshops for small companies and micro enterprises and holding seminars to train and assist companies to better understand the challenges of Brexit and to continue to implement such initiatives as the online trading vouchers, which are important also. I urge all those in the sectors that are concerned about the potential impact of Brexit to contact LEOs as they can assist companies and provide advice.
In response to what Deputy Stephen Donnelly said, we carried out a survey which showed that 49% of companies had not been affected yet by Brexit and 15% of companies had been affected to a minimal extent, but there are concerns about the future. In terms of policy response, we are progressing the development of a Brexit working capital guarantee scheme and other loan options also for the long term. That will depend on resources and EU state aid rules as well. We have worked hard in recent months to ensure our specific concerns are being raised by our EU partners. Our consultative approach will continue with our economic preparations for Brexit.