I am pleased to have an opportunity to update the House on the special meeting of the European Council, which I attended in Brussels last Wednesday. President Tusk convened this meeting following the UK Parliament's rejection of the withdrawal agreement on 29 March last. As Deputies will recall, at the previous meeting of the European Council on 21 March, we agreed that if the withdrawal agreement was not ratified by the UK Parliament, we would extend Article 50 until 12 April, by which time the Prime Minister should have outlined an alternative plan.
Brexit was the only item on the agenda for our meeting last Wednesday. The meeting began with an exchange of views with the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani. These exchanges are always useful, particularly when it comes to Brexit, because the European Parliament has a crucial role to play in this respect. The European Parliament must ratify the withdrawal agreement in order for it to take effect. Prime Minister May was then invited to speak to the 27 EU leaders. She elaborated on her request for a further extension to Article 50. She described the cross-party talks which are under way in London. She said that more time is needed to facilitate an agreement on the way forward. The Prime Minister fully accepted that the withdrawal agreement is closed and will not be renegotiated. Therefore, the cross-party talks are focusing on the shape of the future relationship. From the perspective of the EU, we have always said that if the UK changes its red lines, we will be ready to amend the political declaration on the framework of the future relationship. We have consistently said that we want the withdrawal agreement to be ratified in order that there is an orderly Brexit. This will allow negotiations on a new economic and security partnership with the UK to begin without delay, which is in all of our interests because it helps to avoid a no-deal scenario.
We took account of the Prime Minister's view that the cross-party talks could produce an outcome which would enable the withdrawal agreement to be ratified by the House of Commons. We were favourably disposed towards allowing time for this. Our subsequent discussions focused on the length of a possible extension. We assessed Prime Minister May's request for an extension until 30 June, President Tusk's suggestion of a year-long flexible extension and other proposals from leaders. Our aim in our discussions was to be as helpful as possible to the UK, while keeping in mind the need for European unity and the need for us to protect ourselves, the EU institutions and the work of the Union. Differing and very valid views on the best way to achieve this aim were expressed. On balance, we agreed that a flexible extension until 31 October would be the best way forward. This means the UK can leave the EU before that date if the withdrawal agreement has been ratified. In such circumstances, the UK will leave the EU on the first day of the first month after it has been ratified.
If the UK has not left the EU by the time the elections to the European Parliament take place, as a member state it will participate in those elections. The Prime Minister has said she wants to see the withdrawal agreement ratified before then. Nonetheless, the UK Government has already made the order for the elections to be held. If the agreement has not been ratified and the UK does not hold European Parliament elections, it will leave without a deal on 1 June. The UK has also committed to act in a responsible and constructive way during the extension. This allays any concerns - justified or otherwise - about the risks that an extension could pose for the Union and safeguards its effective functioning and its capacity to take decisions that will affect our citizens into the future. I was pleased to hear President Juncker advise at the European Council that long-term decisions can be discussed among the 27 member states without the UK. However, the UK will continue to have full rights as a member state and therefore must continue to comply with its obligations. We avoided a no-deal Brexit on 12 April and we provided the UK with more time to ensure an orderly withdrawal.
On that basis, I welcome the outcome of the European Council meeting.
Once again, we emphasised that the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, cannot be renegotiated and that any unilateral commitments made by the UK must be compatible with the letter and spirit of the withdrawal agreement. This point was also reinforced during my earlier meetings with Chancellor Merkel, President Macron and Mr. Michel Barnier, in my telephone contacts with Prime Ministers Rutte, Muscat, Kurz, Ratas and Bettel, and my engagements with other EU counterparts. Responsibility for finding a positive way forward between now and the end of October now lies with the United Kingdom.
As I said before, the European Union is not a prison. Nobody is forced to stay. The EU is our common European home and no country should be forced out. The UK effectively has three options. It can ratify the withdrawal agreement, it can revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU, or it can leave without a deal.
Before the European Council proper, I had the opportunity to engage with some of my EU counterparts, including a meeting of the Heads of State of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Ireland, hosted by the Belgian Prime Minister, Mr. Charles Michel. There was a meeting of the European People's Party leaders. I also had many discussions with colleagues at the margins of the meeting. I thank them for their support for Ireland. We agreed to continue to co-operate closely in the period ahead. The strong unity at EU level that had been such a feature of the Brexit negotiations will continue. In addition to Brexit itself, we have many important challenges to meet and decisions to take in the coming months. The extension until 31 October will allow the EU to focus on other matters. At the next scheduled meeting of the European Council in June, for example, we will discuss economic and other issues. We agreed, however, that we would use the meeting very briefly to review progress regarding Brexit and consider any issues that may have arisen in the interim.
The outcome we agreed at the European Council meeting last Wednesday was practical and sensible. Unfortunately, however, given the ongoing political uncertainty in London, the risk of no deal has not been fully averted. It still could happen by accident. The UK Parliament has indicated it does not want a no-deal outcome but unless it takes decisive action, by finding a majority for a way forward, this is a possibility. In light of this, we are continuing our preparations for all outcomes, particularly no deal.
Brexit will have negative consequences but we are determined to be as ready as we can. A comprehensive contingency action plan is in place, with a whole-of-government response. In recent months, we have ramped up our planning at both domestic and EU levels, and this work will intensify. The Brexit omnibus Act, which was passed by the Oireachtas last month, was signed into law by the President on St Patrick's Day. Once again, I thank the Opposition for its co-operation in ensuring the rapid passage of this legislation. The common travel area has been protected and strengthened. Work on the required secondary legislation, covering a wide range of issues, from driver licenses to the recognition of qualifications, is progressing in parallel and will continue. We are also working hard to ensure our ports and airports will be ready to deal with new customs and trade controls. Although some disruption will be inevitable regardless of what kind of Brexit occurs, we are determined that the necessary infrastructure, staffing and ICT will be in place so the trade flows can continue. Budget 2019 included €78 million for farmers, fishermen and food SMEs to cover the additional costs associated with Brexit. Low-cost loans are available, as are grants and copious amounts of information and advice.
The Cabinet reviews and discusses this work on a weekly basis. The Tánaiste chairs regular meetings of the Brexit stakeholders' forum, which had its 17th meeting last month. Finally, it is worth restating that the European Commission understands and acknowledges fully the specific challenges Brexit poses for Ireland, particularly in the event of no deal and particularly at the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. We will continue to work closely with the Commission to find solutions for our citizens, businesses and farmers.