I thank the members for their assistance with the time challenges today. I will try to be as brief as possible but I will be back before the committee again so if there is something we do not cover we will have an opportunity to do so again.
I thank the committee for the invitation to address it and to outline what will be on the agenda of the General Affairs Council as well as where we currently stand with Brexit. I will attend the General Affairs Council on 16 October in Luxembourg. The agenda will include preparation for the European Council meeting on 17 October. That includes the enlargement process in respect of Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia. At the European Council leaders will discuss a range of issues, including the next multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and the new EU institutional cycle. With your permission, Chairman, I propose to first brief the committee on the work of the General Affairs Council, GAC, and then give an update on the preparations for the UK's withdrawal from the European Union.
Over the summer, the Presidency sent a questionnaire to member states to determine their positions on a number of issues in the MFF negotiations. This was followed by one-on-one bilateral meetings with each member state to discuss their key priorities. Ireland’s meeting was held on 2 September between myself and the Finnish Minister for European Affairs, Tytti Tuppurainen. Our discussion focused on Ireland’s key priorities, particularly the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and the proposed cuts which we oppose, and the overall level of the MFF. At the General Affairs Council on 16 September, the Minister said that these meetings had been helpful in determining the political perspectives on the negotiations. The Presidency will use that to help prepare a paper to steer the discussions at the European Council meeting in October.
The Finnish Presidency also updated Ministers at the September GAC on its recent work on the MFF and set out its plans for the next steps. In my intervention, I said Ireland's first priority was the CAP and preserving the overall CAP payment. I shared concerns, however, that Brexit may overshadow the overall discussion on other issues at the European Council. I noted that it was important that leaders give a clear direction regarding the overall size of the EU budget and that we must ensure the MFF is adequately resourced to deliver on our priorities. While there are some who believe a smaller European Union should mean a smaller budget, we believe that with newer and emerging priorities as well as the important traditional priorities we must ensure it is adequately funded. We have always said that we are willing to pay more in that regard.
At this month’s European Council, leaders will also discuss implementation of the next strategic agenda. Adopted in June, the agenda will guide the EU’s work for the next five years. The European Council will monitor the implementation of the priorities and give further political direction, as necessary. We will work with fellow member states as well as the new Commission and the European Parliament to ensure the agenda is successfully implemented. Given the massive amount of contact and engagement we have had with citizens and the work this committee has done over the past year and a half, it is important citizens can see that their interventions and communications with the Government have been reflected in the agenda and that they are clearly followed through and implemented. In addition, leaders will be updated on the appointment of the next Commission. In that regard, I congratulate our Commissioner, Mr. Phil Hogan, who was officially appointed Commissioner for Trade yesterday. Following hearings for all Commissioners-designate, the Parliament will vote on the Commission as a whole later this month. If approved, the new Commission will begin its term on 1 November. Christine Lagarde will also be formally confirmed as the next European Central Bank, ECB, president at the European Council.
Regarding enlargement, the forthcoming GAC will discuss whether to open EU accession negotiations with the Republic of North Macedonia and Albania. Ireland fully agreed with the European Commission reports in May which judged that both countries had made significant progress on the requested reforms and that EU accession negotiations should be opened this year. I visited North Macedonia and Albania earlier in the year and it was clear in my engagement, not just at political level but at many other levels, that progress has been made. North Macedonia has made great strides on its reform agenda and demonstrated particular political courage in signing and implementing the Prespa agreement.
The situation in Albania is more complex but it is clear that significant progress has been made across many of the chapters in the past year, in particular the comprehensive justice reforms are a significant achievement.
Ireland supports the opening EU accession negotiations with both countries. It is our strong preference that they would both advance together. In order to maintain credibility in the region, it is up to us to maintain and follow through on our commitments and reward the candidate countries for the reforms that they have already undertaken.
In terms of the rule of law, an issue which has been discussed for some time, the issues that have arisen in a number of EU member states regard the failure to comply fully with the Union's fundamental values, which is deeply concerning. We will continue to work with the EU institutions and member states to resolve the challenges currently faced through constructive dialogue and to prevent such challenges from emerging in the future. The September General Affairs Council discussed a number of rule of law issues. The Ministers had a general discussion on how we can strengthen rule of law in the Union, prompted by the European Commission's communication last July. A formal hearing on the rule of law under Article 7 also took place at the September meeting to consider the situation in Hungary, which is the first such meeting to take place. In addition, the Commission briefed Ministers on the ongoing state of play regarding the rule of law in Poland.
On Brexit, which is an issue that the Chairman wanted this meeting to focus mainly on, the next General Affairs Council will provide an important opportunity to re-affirm our priorities with my EU 27 but, most importantly, the need for a solution that addresses the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland. The EU’s solidarity and understanding remains absolutely resolute as re-affirmed by Michel Barnier when he met the Tánaiste in Brussels last Friday. It is heartening to know that we face the Brexit challenge with all of the stability and solidarity of our EU membership and what it brings.
Given the current political uncertainty in London, the risk of a no-deal Brexit remains significant. Ireland and our EU partners stand by the withdrawal agreement and still see it as the best way and best mechanism to achieve an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU. However, we are committed to finding a way forward. The EU is open to considering any credible, fully worked-out proposals put forward by the UK so long as they achieve the same outcome as the backstop. While the UK has provided the Commission with four technical non-papers, these do not constitute formal proposals or amount to legally operational solutions. As the Taoiseach stated after his meeting with Prime Minister Johnson in New York, there remains a serious and significant gap between what the UK is putting forward as possible solutions and what the EU can accept. Irrespective and despite what we have heard in recent days, that position has not changed.
Against this backdrop, the Government's continued preparations for Brexit have the highest priority. We have always been clear that a no-deal Brexit would result in absolute disruption and severe negative economic impacts across this island. We are, however, continuing to actively prepare. This planning incudes engagement at EU level, responses by Government and actions by business and individual citizens. These measures, I believe, are working. We have held more than 1,200 stakeholder preparedness events that covered sectors ranging from construction to tourism and issues ranging from customs requirements to currency fluctuations. These events are guided by advice from Departments, Government agencies, county councils and individual sectors. More than €70 million in support funds is available through Enterprise Ireland alone, which is just one support mechanism. I encourage the business sector to access the funding that is available to them.
Continuing the approach of Budgets 2017 to 2019, Budget 2020, that Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, will announce next week, will look to support the sectors most exposed. As one of the UK's closest trading and business partners, Brexit will mean change for all Irish businesses regardless of location, size or sector. It is vital that exposed businesses, in particular, prepare for no-deal. The Government's campaign entitled Getting Your Business Brexit Ready - Practical Steps focuses on the nine steps that every business, whether it is large or small, should take now to help it prepare for Brexit. Since 16 September, local enterprise offices have begun weekly slots on a number of local radio stations nationwide, providing information on getting businesses ready for Brexit. Many businesses have already taken the necessary steps but I urge those that have not to do so as soon as possible.
I shall now discuss the landbridge, which is a huge concern given our status as an island but also because we export 90% of what we produce. Given the importance of the landbridge as a trade route for our businesses and economy, the Government has been working to ensure that transiting, via the landbridge, remains as efficient as possible in all Brexit scenarios. These efforts are both domestic, in terms of new infrastructure and processes in place in our ports, and international. In particular, we have begun engaging with our colleagues in the Commission, in France, Belgium and Luxembourg, to mitigate as much as possible the effects on goods transiting via the landbridge. There was a shared recognition of the strategic importance of the UK landbridge as a transit route for all our economies.
Let us be clear, the landbridge after Brexit will not replicate the status quo for operators. It will very much depend on traders being compliant with the new requirements. Detailed advice on this is available on the Government's Brexit website, which I strongly urge people to consult.
Targeted information campaigns are under way to ensure that operators are aware of the steps that they must take and the supports available to them. As noted in the July 2019 contingency action plan update, operators should be prepared for delays at UK ports in general, and at the port of Dover in particular, given the general disruption that a no-deal Brexit would cause and given the clear understanding that we cannot expect Irish hauliers to be given special or preferential treatment over other European hauliers or, indeed, hauliers from the UK.
The Border in the event of a no-deal Brexit scenario, which is a serious question that is being raised, would result in far reaching change on the island of Ireland and risks for Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement are significant. This is not something to be taken lightly and is certainly not something that we are taking lightly.
The Government continues to work closely with the Commission to meet the shared twin objectives of avoiding a hard border and protecting the Single Market and Ireland's place in it. This work involves us looking at necessary checks to preserve Ireland's full participation in the Single Market and the customs union. Any arrangements in a no-deal scenario would be sub-optimal to the backstop and have profound implications for North-South trade, including through the impact of tariffs, checks, additional costs and administrative burdens. I believe it would have an impact on the co-operation that has evolved North and South since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. To avoid the emergence of a hard border and protecting the Good Friday Agreement, North-South co-operation is essential deal or no-deal. In the event of a no-deal it will be a prerequisite to any negotiations on a future agreement between the EU and the UK. The Commission has been very clear in saying that in the event of a no-deal in order for negotiations to re-engage financial settlements, citizens' rights, the Irish Border and the Irish protocol will be back on the table.
It is important to remember that Ireland is working on preparedness and contingency planning as a committed member of the EU 27 with the full support of the European Commission and other member states. Many of the actions aimed at mitigating the effects of Brexit are also being taken at an EU level as they involve sectors regulated by EU law. The EU has put in place contingency measures in a range of sectors of particular importance to us such as aviation, finance and road transport. The EU has published some 80 preparedness notices, providing guidance for businesses and citizens. We welcome the Commission's proposal to extend financial supports, should there be a no-deal Brexit, by making the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund available to support Member States and affected workers. We are engaging with the Commission and other member states on the proposed scope and details of the measure. We have been assured, in the event of a no-deal, that further financial supports would be provided, not just for us but other member states negatively impacted.
Brexit presents an unprecedented challenge to Ireland. It is only by working with the Government, business and citizens together and with our EU partners that we can aim to mitigate, as much as possible, the implications of a no-deal and ensure that we are as prepared as we can be for the changes it will bring. However, we cannot understand and know all of the potential challenges that may arise.
I am happy to take any questions that the Committee members may have. Again, I thank the Chairman and the committee for the invitation to address the committee today.