That Dáil Éireann:
supports the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the European Union (EU) and the European Atomic Energy Community, of the one part, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK), of the other part, done on 30th December, 2020;
— the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, together with the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland have ensured the achievement of Ireland’s key objectives in the Brexit process, including Ireland’s continued commitment to our place at the heart of Europe and protection of our place in the Single Market;
— the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, which protects the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process, including avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, is now also in effect as of 1st January, 2021; and
— the Trade and Cooperation Agreement explicitly takes account of the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK, pursuant to which current bilateral arrangements are protected so that Irish and British citizens can continue to live, work, study, access healthcare, social security and public services in each jurisdiction; and
acknowledges that while the UK has left the EU, including the seamless trading environment provided by its Single Market and Customs Union, the Agreement provides stability to underpin a new EU-UK relationship, notably tariff and quota free trade and crucially avoids the alternative of a no deal scenario.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the trade and co-operation agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom. In the four and a half years since the decision was taken in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, there has been no guarantee that a future-oriented agreement would be reached. The intervening years have been bruising and uncertain. For Ireland, Brexit has been and is an unequivocal negative. It has caused considerable disruption and upheaval. While the Government led efforts to prepare for what was to come, it was difficult to do so against a background where a no-deal outcome on the future relationship remained a very real possibility. The withdrawal agreement reached in November 2019 meant that at least the United Kingdom's departure would take place in an orderly way. It provided certainty to European Union citizens living in the United Kingdom and their United Kingdom counterparts living throughout the European Union. It settled the financial terms on which the United Kingdom would leave.
Most importantly, through the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, it brought certainty and clarity on the most acute risks to Ireland, banishing the spectre of a hard border on this island. It protected the Good Friday Agreement and the common travel area.
The withdrawal agreement was one part - an important part - of the complicated jigsaw puzzle of Brexit. It opened the way for negotiations on the future relationship between the EU and the UK, and it started a period of transition that would end, one way or the other, on 31 December last. Progress in those negotiations was slow, at times painfully so. The EU team, ably led by our chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, sought to achieve an ambitious and comprehensive outcome that would pave the way for deep and close partnership into the future. As the endgame approached, the largest divisions remained on issues including governance, establishing a level playing field to ensure fair competition, and fishing. A breakthrough on all three was essential to reaching a deal. Given the essential need for trust in the process, and trust that any agreement would stick, Ireland and the EU were very clear also that the elements of the then United Kingdom Internal Market Bill that breached the withdrawal agreement had to be removed. All this was against the stark backdrop of Covid-19, and the ticking clock heralding the end of the transition period on 31 December last. Throughout, I expressed my belief that with political will, and a willingness to compromise, a deal was within our grasp. It was certainly in all of our interests. A no-deal outcome would have represented an historic failure of politics, with potentially irreversible political and geopolitical consequences and economic repercussions over a sustained period.
Today, therefore, it is right that we reflect on the positive significance of the motion before us. There was nothing inevitable about the agreement reached between EU-UK on Christmas Eve. The finalisation of the trade and co-operation agreement, together with the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, means that all of Ireland’s key objectives in the negotiations were achieved. In particular, these agreements ensure the protection of the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process; avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland; facilitate the maintenance of the common travel area; enshrine the best possible outcome, given UK choices, for trade and the economy, notably tariff-free and quota-free trade with the UK; protect Ireland's place in the Single Market; protect the Single Market itself; and ensure fair competition and a level playing field for Irish businesses.
The trade and co-operation agreement creates a new stable relationship with the UK for the Irish transport and energy sectors and ensures co-operation between police services on these islands can continue, based on protecting fundamental rights and the rule of law. Importantly, it allows EU-UK relations to move forward into 2021 from an agreed starting point, rather than from a point of division and rupture. I want today to put on the record of this House my gratitude to Michel Barnier and the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, for the resourcefulness, determination, integrity and composure which were the hallmarks of their approach to the negotiations with the UK throughout. They both represent enormous grace under pressure.
The protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, which was agreed politically some 15 months ago and has been in law since 1 February last, only came into practical effect on 1 January 2021. During the final months of 2020, there was intense engagement between the EU and UK to agree a shared approach on all aspects and issues related to the interpretation and implementation of the protocol. I want to recognise the immense work of Commissioner Maroš Šefcovic and his team for their attentive, flexible and constructive approach to the operational decisions that were required to ensure the effective implementation of the protocol.
The decision of the UK to leave the Single Market and the customs union brings about considerable disruption for business in Northern Ireland, with new processes and obligations to be undertaken and respected. The protocol, however, ensures that Northern Irish traders continue to have access not only to markets in Great Britain, but also to the EU Single Market of 450 million consumers. This access for NI traders is also vital for all-island supply chains. That the trade and co-operation agreement puts in place an arrangement with no tariffs or quotas has had the important effect of making the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol less complex. The successful conclusion of the new EU-UK agreement has also created a positive stepping-off point for the future EU-UK relationship, which can feed in positively to the ongoing work of the joint committee and specialised committee on the implementation of the protocol over time.
The commitment by other EU member states, the European Commission, Ireland, the British Government and, in recent days, the Northern Ireland Executive to put in place a PEACE PLUS programme of real scale for the period from 2021 to 2027 is really significant. PEACE PLUS will deliver crucial community supports and vital cross-Border investment that will help to mitigate some of the negative consequences of Brexit. We thank all involved for all their work and support for this initiative. We are particularly grateful for the responsiveness of the Commission to our continuing efforts and our advocacy for such a fund, which as been well matched by all of the other stakeholders, including the UK Government, the Northern Ireland Executive and our own Government, and will be significant into the future.
Despite the significance of the new trade and co-operation agreement, and the withdrawal agreement including the protocol, there remains a sizable gap between what trade and co-operation looked like during and after the UK's membership of the European Union. At an early point, the UK decided to leave the Single Market and the customs union, even if it sometimes baulked at what the inevitable consequences of this choice would be. Simply put, in choosing that path, the UK stepped outside the seamless trading environment of the EU. Being outside means friction - they are now in a market of one country, not 28 countries. While there are no tariffs and quotas under the agreement, there are new procedures and checks that apply to the movement of goods between Great Britain and the EU. This means greater complexity and greater expense.
The Government has worked hard to support businesses exposed to the British market to prepare. I pay tribute again to the efforts that many people have made despite the unprecedented difficulties 2020 presented. We are now experiencing the reality of the new arrangements. In particular, our agriculture sector, our small and medium-sized enterprises and all those involved in getting goods to market, including logistics, haulage and shipping companies, are working under new rules. The fishing sector is particularly affected by the compromises on fish quotas that were necessary to secure a deal. Therefore, I warmly welcome the European Commission's proposal in recent days for an allocation of over €1 billion to Ireland from the Brexit adjustment reserve – a fund which has been put in place to support those member states and sectors most affected by Brexit.
The Government has been working for several years to prepare for the real and substantive change that Brexit brings, with intensive efforts across many Departments and agencies. This has involved the development of necessary legislation, through two Brexit omnibus Acts; the provision of financial, upskilling and advisory supports for business; extensive stakeholder outreach; and a multi-year public communications campaign to promote readiness. The most visible element of the Government’s Brexit preparations is the substantial investment in infrastructure, systems and staffing at Dublin Airport, Dublin Port and Rosslare Port. In Dublin Port alone, 140,000 sq. m of building work has been completed involving 500,000 hours of effort. These facilities include new inspection bays, import and export facilities and over 300 parking spaces for HGVs. The capacity of customs and other ICT systems has been greatly enhanced to assist in managing the expected twelvefold increase in annual import and export declarations from approximately 1.6 million per annum to in excess of 20 million from 2021. Provision has also been made to deploy some additional 1,500 staff to support and carry out the increased customs, sanitary and phystosanitary, SPS, and food safety checks and controls.
Revenue, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the HSE all have 24-hour operations at Dublin Port.
Taking budget 2021 into account, our total Brexit-related expenditure since the United Kingdom referendum on EU membership is now in excess of €1 billion. Over recent years, the Government has put in place extensive financial supports for sectors to assist businesses to prepare for and mitigate the impacts of Brexit. This includes a €100 million scheme to help the agrifood sector adapt, with investments in new products and market diversification to make the sector stronger and more resilient and to reduce our reliance on exports to the United Kingdom. There is also a range of Government-funded Brexit loan options to assist business with potential cash flow issues arising out of Brexit, including the Brexit loan scheme, the future growth loan scheme and the Brexit business loan from Microfinance Ireland.
We listened to demands from business for support with new customs arrangements. The Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Act 2020 provides for a postponed accounting for VAT. The ready for customs grants assist companies to prepare for the new customs requirements, with up to €9,000 available per eligible employee placed in a customs role. We have continued to engage with stakeholders, representative bodies and businesses through the Brexit stakeholder forum, the retail forum, the enterprise forum, the Revenue consultative forum and the Brexit stakeholder consultative committee for the agriculture and fisheries sector. In recent months, with the added challenge of the Covid crisis, we have made great use of virtual platforms and webinars to connect and communicate with those groups and beyond.
We have also engaged with traders, hauliers and ferry companies on their preparations and to encourage the market to look at increasing the capacity on direct routes to Europe. A significant number of new direct ferry services with additional capacity between Ireland and the European Union have now come on stream. In fact, the number of ferry services running between Rosslare and mainland Europe has trebled in the past year.
Of course, it is not just business that will experience changes. We have been advising individuals on issues that will impact them, from driving licences and car insurance to pet travel and online retail. All of this work has been supported by sustained and intensive communications and the stakeholder outreach programme. Countrywide, people will have come across our Brexit advertisements on the radio, while watching television and in their newspapers and social media feeds. Accepting that there is no such thing as a good Brexit, my aim as Taoiseach has always been to mitigate the risks and reduce the impact on our economy and citizens to the extent that it was possible. The most important step towards that goal was the achievement of an agreement at the end of the negotiations, and that has now been achieved. As I said at the start, this outcome was by no means inevitable. Meanwhile, domestically, we have used every possible tool at our disposal, legislative, financial, administrative and advisory, to manage this change as best we can, to limit the disruption and to assist all who need help as they adapt to the new realities.
Ireland has chosen our path and it is the path of the European Union and of multilateralism, where countries play by the same rules, co-operate freely and fairly and try to raise all boats. Never has our choice resonated more than it has over the past four years as we have seen the value of the solidarity that comes from being a member state of the European Union. I have always said that, though I regret it, I accept the choice that Britain has made and I wish it well as it embarks on this new chapter in its history. Our relationship with our nearest neighbour will always be close and special. The ties between us are so extensive and so strong. No country has more to gain than we have from positive and stable European Union-United Kingdom relations. Therefore, I welcome today's motion and the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement, which provides the essential stability on which we will continue to build in the years to come.