Business people from Border regions came to the Oireachtas yesterday to tell us how Brexit is affecting them. One tourism company in Wicklow said it has cut its UK visitor forecasts in half and believes that Brexit has already cost several thousand jobs in the industry. A sheep and beef farmer from Fermanagh told us that by the time the UK leaves the EU, he will have relocated his business to within the EU. A transport operator from Antrim said that if the talks proceed to phase two, which is on the future relationship, without the Border being sorted, he will have to pull his business out of Northern Ireland.
We are all aware that these negotiations are delicate and ongoing and we welcome agreement in principle on areas like the common travel area. However, there has been little progress on the question of Northern Ireland and the Border. It has been agreed by all of us, the Taoiseach, Prime Minister May and Michel Barnier that there cannot under any circumstances be a return to the Border of the past yet the UK Government insists that Northern Ireland will leave the Single Market and the customs union, will not have a unique or special status and will not have equivalence of regulations for all products. As the Minister is aware, a European Commission paper leaked just a few days ago stated that in the opinion of the Commission, what the UK Government is insisting on for Northern Ireland will lead inevitably to border controls and a hard border. Many other experts have reached the same conclusion.
The greatest influence Ireland has in the Brexit talks is on whether sufficient progress has been made on the question of Ireland and the Border to allow the Brexit talks move to phase two, which involves talks about a future trading relationship. At the European Council meeting in October, the Irish Government's position was that insufficient progress had been made on the Irish question to allow the talks to proceed. However, just last week, the Taoiseach stated that he now believes that the talks can move to phase two in December. It is unclear what additional progress has been made on the Border to change the Government's position on this critical issue - so much so that just a few days after the Taoiseach made his statement, Michel Barnier warned that EU member states need to start preparing for a collapse of the Brexit talks.
For many business people preparing for Brexit on both sides of the Border, the Irish Government's position is unclear. Does the Irish Government still believe that the Brexit talks are likely to move to phase two in December? If that is the position of the Irish Government, could the Minister for Education and Skills let us know the progress that has been made since the October summit that has changed the Government's position? If that is no longer the position, could the Minister outline for us even at a high level what sufficient progress on the Border would look like for the Government to accept that sufficient progress has been made?