We are okay on time. We have another 45 minutes owng to the delay in the Dáil.
I thank members and the Chairman for their comments and support. Ireland has a unique opportunity to sell itself and otherwise engage with member states and countries across the world on St. Patrick's Day. It is an important opportunity for us to relay the best of what we have to offer in trade, business, culture and many other key areas.
I thank members for their comments on that.
Senator Richmond asked about the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and the timelines. Initially, when this discussion started almost two years ago the current Commission had the ambition that it would be concluded and finalised before the European elections but, as we have seen in previous years, the negotiations are extremely complex and the added complexities of Brexit have pushed that out further. We agree that a finalised political decision should be made by October. Engagement is already happening with the European Parliament on specific areas, sectors and industries but we hope that when it is agreed in October or in the autumn that it would then be passed on to the Parliament and it would work on it also and then it would have to be agreed. I met the Chair of the Committee on Budgets of the Parliament and many others on this as well. There is constant engagement on the MFF at various levels. It is important that we try to conclude it in a timely manner. I note that in the previous MFF a number of programmes were delayed because of the delay in agreeing the final overall budget, so it is important that we get it done on time.
I agree with what the Deputy said about Erasmus and many other programmes. We need to highlight Erasmus more, as well as the fact that it is not just for third level students as it also now applies to those who are in traineeships or those who work in voluntary or community organisations, and those who are in primary school or secondary school. There are so many more opportunities available that it is important that in addition to the education platforms, we highlight the opportunities that are available. When we carried out the Future of Europe discussions throughout the country the one thing people highlighted and that became clear to us in the discussions is that people are not aware of a lot of what Europe is doing and that we need to communicate better. In that regard, as part of our overall discussion and the presentation that we will make to the Council meeting in Sibiu on 9 May, we have started engaging with all Departments, including the Department of Education and Skills, to identify how they could better communicate their own connections with Europe or how people can benefit through European programmes such as Erasmus+ and others. We have had engagement already and hope to have further engagement with Departments in that regard.
Senator Richmond referred to the rule of law in Hungary and asked what are the sanctions. We must adhere to the process that is currently in place. We have seen results in certain areas following the engagement with Poland. New legislation was introduced on the basis of the hearings we have had. I contributed to five different hearings and engaged with our Polish colleagues in the Commission. We need to allow the process to take place for Hungary as well. This was presented to the Council through the European Parliament. An initial discussion was had on how that would be brought forward as it was a new initiative but following on from yesterday's discussion, the current Presidency has stated this will continue to be an issue and that we must continue to raise it. I accept there are concerns but Hungary has asked for fair and due process in order to address the questions people have raised.
In terms of the alliances, as many speakers mentioned, we are losing one of our closest neighbours, friends and allies in the UK. We want to continue to be able to work with the UK on key issues but when it comes to the European Council, the General Affairs Council, the agriculture committees or whatever other fora our Ministers will attend, they will not be around the table and it is important that we have other alliances on financial issues, tax, the next MFF, agricultural issues or the digital single economy in terms of the D9+ group that is set up. We are actively engaged in various groups but we are also in discussions with member states across the European Union. It is extremely important that we continue that process and where we can find commonalities that we would work with each other while at the same time not creating any divisions between the European Union and its member states.
In terms of the western Balkans, it is extremely important that we continue to show support for those states seeking to join the European Union. While one member state is unfortunately looking to leave, there are many others who see the European Union as the way forward and as a way for their country to develop, prosper and grow, in particular for their young people. Last year I travelled to Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro and this year I will go to Albania and North Macedonia. What is very clear is that if the European Union does not continue to engage and to open up a process for those states to move along the path to accession, then other countries and regions will engage with them. We must make sure we continue that engagement. My visit to the western Balkans this year was with my Finnish colleague. It is important that we do not just develop those relationships as individual member states but also that we work together to show unity from the European Union as a whole.
In terms of Brexit discussions, the Commission's thoughts on where we are and what we are doing and the general mood, to be honest I think the general mood is one of frustration at the moment. The Commission is continuing to encourage all member states to prepare in the best way that they can. The work that we are doing is not necessarily what other member states need to do, but we are trying to make sure, inasmuch as we can, everything that we do is in parallel with the work that the Commission is doing. There is constant engagement to make sure that we are working in parallel and that we can replicate here anything it is working on where we need to do so.
Senator Craughwell asked what steps have been taken to deal with customs issues. Officials have been hired to deal with east-west trade and the possible complications in terms of freight transport and having to provide documentation that was not the case heretofore. Most importantly, our focus is on ensuring that businesses are prepared and are able to have the documentation and to prepare in that way. In that regard Revenue has been taking part in an outreach programme recently since the central case planning has been ramped up to implementation of a no-deal scenario. It is engaging with small and medium enterprises and it has engaged with a significant number of larger companies as well to make sure they have the correct expertise and knowledge to be able to deal with any of the possible changes that may happen. It is important to stress that even in a deal scenario, some additional paperwork will be required, as well as some changes to the way people are doing business, so it is important that they avail of the assistance irrespective of whether there is going to be a deal or not, because it will be important either way.
As for sending soldiers or identifying places for posts, that is simply not happening. It is not something we are considering. We are not considering anything of the nature of a wall or otherwise and we have consistently said that. We have consistently repeated that there is an onus on the UK to fulfil its obligations as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. The invisible Border that currently exists is integral to the Good Friday Agreement and the continued success of the agreement.
In terms of the mismatch of funding due to Brexit for the PEACE and INTERREG programmes for communities in the North, that is a significant challenge. If the UK were to leave without a deal, we do not know what will happen with funding. That goes back to the question on the MFF and what will happen next. We would have to find out from the UK what funding it wants to continue to pay. The Prime Minister has been clear that there are certain programmes the UK wants to leave, be it the Common Agricultural Policy or the Common Fisheries Policy, but the UK has consistently stated it wishes to remain part of programmes such as PEACE and INTERREG. The UK has already given a commitment to continue to co-fund the programmes with Ireland and the European Union. In addition, the UK also wants to continue involvement with Erasmus and Horizon 2020 among the social and educational programmes. Until we hear from the UK as to what it is that it will continue to fund, it is very hard to identify where the gaps might be. We will continue to fund the PEACE and INTERREG programmes and any others that require cross-Border and North-South support.
In terms of solidarity within the EU, support is strong from all member states. There is frustration but there is clarity from all the colleagues to whom I have spoken, as recently as yesterday, that the withdrawal agreement must remain as is, and that the backstop, the Irish protocol and the issues discussed in terms of the financial settlement and citizens' rights cannot be reopened, but there is an opportunity to focus on the future relationship and possible changes to that.
Senator Craughwell mentioned the European elections that are coming up and that solidarity is strong but there are different factions within European member states that are possibly moving more towards the left or right. Any colleagues with whom I have engaged on the Future of Europe discussions and support for the European Union have said that support for the EU is not less than 60% in any member state. Ours is quite high at 90% but most member states are 60%, 70% or 80% supportive of the European Union.
Through that engagement and through the Future of Europe process, hopefully we can increase that number in all member states, including Ireland.
On the issue of a border poll, I reiterate what Senator Craughwell has said. This is not the time for a border poll. It is certainly not on this Government's agenda and will not be on our agenda in the context of the overall discussions we are having in terms of a deal or no deal. Reference was made to civic groups from the unionist and nationalist communities and the fact that people feel that they do not have representation but the best way to address that is through a functioning Northern Ireland Executive. It is two years and one month since the Assembly last sat, which is a world record for a region to be without a government. It is extremely important that the Executive is back up and running so that groups like the Ulster Farmers Union, Retail NI and various other groups who have expressed support for the withdrawal agreement feel that they have a voice.
Deputy Durkan asked if there is enough investment in place for hauliers. As I said in my opening statement, we are investing as much as we can to ensure that all of the facilities, space and mechanisms are in place at our own ports, including sufficient numbers of customs officials, staff to conduct sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, checks, as well as any required additional lay-bys or expansion of the parameters of the ports. What we cannot predict what the impact will be on those hauliers who continue to use the UK landbridge. We can prepare at our own ports and can engage with our European colleagues, which we have done, particularly in France and Belgium, to try to ensure that when Irish trucks arrive, they are provided with a faster or a dedicated lane to drive through. However, we have no such commitment from the UK and I do not expect that Irish hauliers would have a quicker pass through the Channel Tunnel than British hauliers. That is obviously one of the biggest challenges that we face. Of course, we are also ensuring that even in a no-deal scenario, there will be a reciprocal arrangement to ensure that UK hauliers could continue to travel through the EU and vice versa. However, that is not going to replace what we currently have and is not going to be as good as the status quo. This is one of the biggest challenges that we face but we are working with hauliers who are at the front line in terms of a lot of the chains that we talk about. It is important that they are aware of the supports that are available to them, as well as what is happening on the ground.
On the €300 million Brexit loan scheme fund, it is my understanding that as of 28 January, 338 firms have been given approval. The businesses involved range across the agrifood sector, retail, distribution, manufacturing, hospitality and transport. A further 36 loan applications are being processed at present. Loans to the value of €15.34 million have already been sanctioned so there is still a substantial amount of funding available. In that regard, I would encourage companies to apply to the scheme if they think it is appropriate. We are trying to move the applications along as quickly as possible. There are other supports available too. At a European level, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, has been given permission by the Commission to establish a rescue and restructuring fund in conjunction with Enterprise Ireland. This will provide further support for SMEs whose very survival is under threat. In cases that are not as severe, additional supports can be provided and ceilings can be lifted by Enterprise Ireland.
Reference was made to the CAP and to food security and we have consistently stated in the context of the next round of multi-annual financial framework, MFF, that we would be willing to pay 1.1% rather than the 1% currently being proposed by the Commission. That said, we would obviously want to ensure that our traditional priorities are protected, including the CAP. This is not just important for our own farmers and our own indigenous agriculture sector, but also in terms of food security, hygiene and health. We have a real opportunity to connect this with our discussions on research and innovation, climate change and how our own farmers are champions of change and continue to produce food in the most sustainable way possible.
I assure the committee that the UK has been reminded of the seriousness of the Good Friday Agreement. While it is not for us to interfere in the political process in the UK, we are within our rights to remind the British Government of its obligations as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and we continue to do so. European support has been absolutely steadfast and is very strong. While we might disagree on certain issues and processes, solidarity on this particular issue and the unity of the EU 27 on it has been very strong. Senator Leyden also spoke about the Good Friday Agreement and its standing, irrespective of Brexit, and I agree with him on that we must continue to develop the relationships we have. That is why Irish Ministers are continuing to engage with their UK counterparts, separate to the Brexit negotiations which are being handled by Mr. Michel Barnier and his team at a European level. It is fair to say that relationships are somewhat strained, which is only natural when a negotiation is under way but we have been very clear that we want the progress we have made in recent years to continue post Brexit. We will continue to use the already established ways and means, including various committees, to support that engagement. The committees formed as a result of the Good Friday Agreement could be a good way of engaging with the British when they are no longer sitting at the table at European Council meetings.
We want to pass the so-called omnibus Bill on time and thank Deputies from all sides for their support. We will do everything we can to ensure that it is implemented on time. If it is not needed for 29th March, it will still be there for when it is needed. In response to the various questions about hauliers and being able to ensure that goods can get to the EU as quickly as possible, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has done an enormous amount of work on sea transport. A new vessel, the MV W.B. Yeats, has been launched which can carry three times the amount of its predecessor, which is very significant. However, in terms of perishable goods that need a 20-hour turnaround time rather than goods that can handle a 40 or 60-hour turnaround time, the landbridge is obviously going to be the quickest option, notwithstanding the challenges faced by hauliers when they get to the UK. We are doing everything we can to try to address that.
A question was asked about an extension of Article 50 but as recently as last week, the British Prime Minister said that she is not going to ask for one. Until the British actually ask for an extension, we cannot predict what will happen there. Of course, if they do ask for an extension, we have always said that we would look upon such a request favourably. However, having spoken to colleagues in Europe about this recently, it is clear that the Commission and member states would want to know that there is a good reason for granting an extension and that we will not end up in the same place as we are now in three month's time, which is simply prolonging the uncertainty for so many businesses and people.
On the issue of the green card, this is something that insurance companies are taking on board, based on what was in place prior to our membership of the European Union. My understanding is that they will begin to engage with all of their customers at the beginning of March if a deal has not been agreed or if we have not seen progress. Obviously people do not want to have to fill out additional paperwork but contingency plans must be in place just in case.
We will continue to engage on Hungary and to voice our concerns about the many different issues involved, including the negative impact of recent legislation on voluntary and community organisations, the moving of university courses to Vienna and the Government-funded campaign against the President of the European Commission. Deputy Haughey made reference to the need to continue to build alliances in Europe. As I have already said, we are continuing to engage with our EU partners in the context of discussions on the MFF, the digital agenda, agriculture and finance and taxation issues, as well as on a one-to-one basis. I will be travelling to Lithuania and Latvia next week and the Tánaiste will continue his engagements across all of the EU member states. The rule of law in Poland was mentioned. We will continue with our current policy in that regard but there is a frustration at European level that this process has been ongoing for some time now. While we have seen significant developments, not enough progress has been made in certain areas. This is something on which we need to work together to try to bring it to a conclusion sooner rather than later.
We will have to wait and see if the UK will continue to make a contribution to the multi-annual financial framework in the event of a no-deal scenario.
In April, we hope to publish our contribution to the future of Europe event in Sibiu, Romania, on 9 May. I hope there will be a debate in the Dáil and the Seanad in order that everybody can engage in and contribute to it before it is presented by the Taoiseach on 9 May.
Senator Paul Coghlan asked about the hauliers and ensuring that our exports to the EU reach member states as quickly as possible. We are obviously doing everything I have just outlined, from the work on our ports, to engaging with our EU colleagues, to additional ships, to various other ways that we are trying to engage. The UK has not stated that it will ask for an extension on Article 50. Unless it does so, it is difficult to deal with that issue.