I am grateful for the 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.
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 that 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. The Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson, has stated that he is seriously looking for a deal, along with 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 its stated aspirations with actions. It is now vital that the UK side bring forward proposals for the EU side to consider. The UK has communicated its wish to remove the backstop but has 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 other EU partners. I have had the opportunity over the past few weeks to speak with Michel Barnier and to meet with EU colleagues to reflect on where things are going. The unity of the EU 27 remains strong and intact. We continue also to engage with the UK. As well as the Taoiseach meeting the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, I have, in recent weeks, met the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay, and Northern Ireland Secretary, Julian Smith, on many occasions, 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.
Much of the focus of the debate, particularly in the House of Commons, has been on the backstop. A key priority for Ireland, which is 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 in it, now and in the future. In December 2017, the EU and the UK set out their shared understanding of what needed to be addressed regarding the Border, and they 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 co-operation 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 co-operation 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, freedom of movement, questions of equality and of rights, citizenship and identity, cultural and educational exchanges and cross-Border co-operation on this island. Many areas of North-South co-operation expressly rely on our common EU framework and the avoidance of a hard Border, including related customs or regulatory checks and controls. In areas from agriculture, environment and transport to health, education and tourism, cross-Border co-operation 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 sanitary and phytosanitary, 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 the UK proposal to completely abolish the backstop is totally unacceptable to both Ireland and the EU. We saw this again in the European Parliament today in how they voted on the debate. As Michel Barnier stated in Brussels last week, the EU remains firm on its three core objectives, namely, avoiding a hard Border on the island of Ireland, preserving the integrity of the EU Single Market, and protecting North-South co-operation and the all-island economy. It is deeply disappointing that the British Government has decided now to step back from its commitments of December 2017. Equally, its stance on the future relationship, its wish to diverge from the EU and its rejection of level playing field issues make things more problematic.
We do not want a no-deal outcome – that is clear – but neither can we afford to take the chance of undermining the Good Friday Agreement or of putting ourselves in a position where our place in the Single Market is jeopardised by unproven solutions or, worse still, future promises. As we have said all along, the backstop is an insurance policy, and we have no intention or wish to trap the UK in any arrangement against its will.
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. I refer to interim arrangements we would need to put in place in the event of no deal that 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. We are meeting representatives of the Commission again this week to discuss that. The goal is to reach an outcome with the Commission that 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. 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, which is what it sets out to do.
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. 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. The concerns of everyone in Northern Ireland - of all communities and backgrounds and who are deeply anxious about the impact of Brexit – are a matter of genuine concern to this Government. I am referring to unionists, nationalists 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 relating to the Border, will need to be resolved in advance of opening negotiations on the future EU-UK relationship.
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 is the worst-case scenario. 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 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 and passed key legislation to protect our citizens and support the economy, enterprise and jobs in key economic sectors. Other parties have played a key role in helping us to do that. We have held over 1,200 events relating to stakeholder preparedness in all key sectors. I will be at another tomorrow night in a Border county. We provided training and financial supports to increase our customs capacity. We 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, I am glad to say. Take the example of Revenue's trader engagement programme. Since July, Revenue has contacted approximately 92,000 businesses that traded with the UK last year. It wrote to all 92,000 and I understand it had follow-up telephone calls with about 44,000 of them. This has helped to foster 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 companies, mainly smaller ones, to ensure everyone will be ready on time. To support businesses in this, we recently launched Getting Your Business Brexit Ready - Practical Steps, a campaign that focuses on the nine steps every business, large or small, should take now to help it prepare for Brexit pragmatically.
At this week's National 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 €450 million in supports in previous budgets. Budget 2020, which will be in three weeks, will be based on the assumption of a no-deal Brexit, which is necessary if we are to be prudent. In that context, the Government is considering the provision of timely, targeted, temporary measures for the sectors most exposed. We know what they are. They include the fishing, tourism and hospitality, farming and agrifood sectors.
The Government is prepared for a no-deal Brexit and stands ready to support the economy in such a scenario. There is clearly no perfect level of preparation. The more time we have, the more we can do, but we have done a considerable amount to prepare the country for the disruption it may have to deal with.
We welcome the publication, at the start of this month, of the Commission's Brexit preparedness communication, including proposals to roll over the timelines for existing contingency measures in certain key areas from an Irish perspective, including on air connectivity and international road haulage. The contingency plans for air connectivity have been rolled forward until the end of October and those for haulage until the middle of July of next year, I believe. Both sets of plans have been pushed back by approximately six months.
The proposal to extend EU-level financial supports in the case of no deal to support member states and affected workers is also welcome. At the same time, our work on securing the land bridge is continuing. There are some things we can influence and some we cannot but certainly in all the areas we can influence, we have been doing that. We have been doing it effectively. The land bridge will remain a strategically important link for Ireland in order to get our products to and from the Single Market, which we value. Brexit unavoidably means, however, that the way operators use the land bridge will have to change. Physical capacity at our ports and airports has been enhanced and additional staff have been recruited. We are working with our European partners to clarify their plans for the operation of the land bridge 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. I thank France, in particular, for the commitment it has made, particularly at Calais and perhaps other ports, to separate Irish and British trucks coming off ships into lanes in order to ensure that ours do not get stuck in the queues in which many from the UK will certainly be stuck, at least initially.
I again state how much we appreciate the support and advice received from people on all sides of the House in respect of these complex issues. We will continue to keep the House fully informed of developments relating to this matter, which has far-reaching implications for all of us. We regret the UK's decision to leave and we believe that both parties will be diminished as a result. The fact remains, however, that the UK is due to leave the European Union and we need to prepare for that. The Government will continue to represent and protect the interests of Ireland. It is for London to decide what it intends to do next. Time is very short. However, there is still time to find sensible solutions. This Government will continue to engage in good faith to find a way forward with all involved and with all who have a stake in the outcome. Regardless of the outcome, Brexit will, come what may, bring real and significant change for us all. We continue to prepare, but we are doing so with confidence as an active and committed member state of the EU. Let us not forget that our biggest contingency in all scenarios remains our ongoing EU membership and all of the support, solidarity, and security which it brings.