I thank the members of the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union for their work on this report. I particularly welcome the report’s focus on potential solutions and its efforts to point towards tangible outcomes. It draws on a range of views from a wide cross-section of participants and is an important contribution to the ongoing political and public debate on Brexit in Ireland. Engagement with stakeholders, including through the all-island civic dialogue, continues to form an important part of the Government’s response to Brexit. In this regard, I welcome that the comprehensive document published by the Government on 2 May was taken into account by the committee during its deliberations. This document brought together the findings and outcomes of the extensive preparatory work and consultations undertaken to date by the Government at EU level and on the island of Ireland and it demonstrates how this work would be brought to bear in Ireland’s approach to the negotiations. I am happy that many of the priorities and issues identified in the report resonate with the Government’s approach. The Government will continue to prioritise outreach and engagement as the Brexit process proceeds and I welcome the opportunity to address this House as we approach an important period of the Brexit process.
The report notes that the committee had to complete its work within a very tight timeframe. However, this relatively short period of months also saw an acceleration of developments with regard to the process of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. In this regard, I believe it would be useful to take stock of how the Government’s approach, as set out in the comprehensive document published on 2 May, has been implemented in practice and what has been achieved to date. As the House is aware, Ireland became aware earlier than most of the profound implications of Brexit for our Union, and of the unique and complex implications for Ireland. A key pillar of the Government’s approach has been to share our perspective with our EU partners with a view to ensuring that our unique priorities and concerns have been heard and understood. I think there is often offence that we are only dealing with one particular issue or area, namely, our priority of engaging with our European counterparts to ensure that we were part of the set of principles and guidelines that were outlined, but I do not think that has meant we have ignored other areas affecting our businesses, our domestic market and the international market.
During the course of well over 450 meetings at political and official level over the 12 months since the referendum in the UK, the Government has repeatedly underlined the importance of protecting the gains of the peace process and avoiding a hard Border on the island of Ireland. We have further emphasised the importance of maintaining the common travel area in the context of the Northern Ireland peace process and relations on the island of Ireland and with our neighbouring island. We have demonstrated the extent of our inter-connectedness with the British economy, with in excess of €1.2 billion in trade between the UK and Ireland each week, while 46% of all our food and animal exports go to the UK. We have highlighted the unique geographical position of Ireland, which means that many businesses are reliant on the UK as a land bridge through which they can export their goods to the rest of the EU. We have stressed that as an island, behind an island on the periphery of the EU, with one of the most open economies in the world, Brexit poses serious challenges to our connectivity, especially in transport and energy, which Senators have mentioned and which is vital for our trade and our economy. I welcome that these areas are also comprehensively addressed in the committee's report, including in its extensive chapters on the common travel area, on Northern Ireland and on key sectoral areas such as transport, energy, education and health.
I believe that this campaign of engagement has been effective and has delivered for Ireland. The EU’s negotiating position incorporates the goal of protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process, including the need for flexible and imaginative solutions to avoid a hard Border on the island of Ireland. It recognises the need to maintain bilateral agreements and arrangements between Ireland and the UK, including our unique common travel area. It acknowledges the need to take full account of the situation of Irish citizens residing in Northern Ireland who will continue to enjoy rights as EU citizens. It also recognises the need to address issues arising from Ireland’s unique geographic situation, including the transit of goods to and from Ireland via the UK. The EU’s lead negotiator, Mr. Michel Barnier, put it succinctly during his address to the joint sitting of the Houses of the Oireachtas last May. He said that “Ireland's interests will be the European Union's interests”.
A further important matter raised and identified in the committee’s report, which has also been reflected in the Government’s approach, is the need to ensure that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU would not impact on the unique constitutional status of Northern Ireland. In this regard, at the European Council on 29 April, Ireland secured the acknowledgement of its EU partners that the Good Friday Agreement expressly provides for an agreed mechanism where a united Ireland may be brought about through peaceful and democratic means, and in accordance with international law, the entire territory of such a united Ireland would thus be part of the European Union.
Engagement with our EU partners will continue to be a central priority for the Government, not only in terms of promoting and protecting Ireland’s interests within the context of Brexit, but also in advancing another important goal identified in the committee’s report, namely, building new alliances and partnerships with our fellow remaining EU member states and countries outside the EU.
Looking beyond the negotiations themselves, it is clear our wider response to Brexit must also be set in a wider context of engaging with our EU partners as a committed member of the Union. The Government is determined that Brexit cannot and should not derail or dominate the important day-to-day business of the EU itself, which is so necessary to the security and stability of our continent and the prosperity of our citizens. The future of Ireland is very much at the heart of the EU and we will continue as one of 27 in our approach. This is an approach that clearly enjoys the support of the Irish people. Despite the challenges posed by Brexit, support for our membership of the EU remains exceptionally high, with the most recent survey stating it is 88%.
Over the past week, the contention by one commentator that Ireland’s best interests might be served by following the UK out of the EU has drawn some attention. I note that the committee, during its deliberations, also heard from one contributor with a similar standpoint. While many might not agree with the sentiment, it is not a question of dismissing such ideas out of hand. It is extremely important to have a continuing debate about our EU membership and listen to the opinions and views of others on what it does for us as a country. However, it is clear, not least from the report we are discussing, that our continued membership of the EU must lie at the heart of our approach to Brexit.
As the complexity, challenges and consequences of Brexit have become steadily clearer in the year following the referendum, it is noteworthy that at the same time support for EU membership has increased across all member states. We have seen this in national elections. The Government’s approach is delivering for Ireland but, as made abundantly clear by Michel Barnier last week, we are at the beginning of what will be an extremely lengthy and difficult process. The committee's report identifies significant challenges that face individual sectors, such as transport, aviation, energy and the environment. These issues are known to the Government, and we will continue to elaborate our understanding and response through the ongoing conversations we are having with industry and society, through engagement with our fellow EU partners, and through our internal Government analysis and co-ordination that involves all Departments and many of our agencies.
There is no doubt the implications of Brexit for our economy will be profound, and this is set out clearly in the report. The Government’s position has been clear and consistent. We want to see the closest possible future relationship between the EU and the UK, including on trade. This objective is shared by the EU and the UK. However, it will take some time to conclude such an agreement and it is for this reason Ireland supports the need for an effective transitional arrangement that bridges the gap between a withdrawal agreement and a future relationship agreement, which is different to what Senator Richmond discussed, but as we move into phase 2 we will begin to discuss many of the issues raised by Senators. It is important that once the issues are addressed there is a smooth transitional period.
One of the EU's core objectives in these negotiations is to prevent legal vacuums on the day the UK leaves the EU and to address, as far as possible, uncertainties for our citizens and our businesses. Transitional arrangements will be vital to achieving this, especially for sectors such as aviation, financial services, health, energy and agriculture. Therefore, I welcome the select committee's findings and conclusions in this respect. While the Government will work hard with EU partners to achieve a close partnership with the UK, supported by robust transitional arrangements, we also need to be clear that Brexit, however unwanted, will have consequences. It is a UK policy and not an Irish or EU policy. Therefore, member states and businesses must be prepared. The Irish Government has been preparing for this for some time. We have already taken important steps to prepare our economy, including in budget 2017, in the Action Plan for Jobs 2017 and in our new trade and investment strategy. We have an investment of €150 million for our agrifood industry and for additional personnel in many key organisations to work with enterprises.
Brexit will be a critical factor in our longer-term economic strategy. A new ten-year capital plan is in preparation. We are revising our Enterprise 2025 policy and we are in active discussions with the European Investment Bank for a potential increase in investment in the country. We are also exploring existing EU measures that could potentially assist Ireland in mitigating the effects of Brexit on Irish businesses and economic sectors, while also making a strong case at EU level that Ireland may require further support that responds to the fact the UK's withdrawal represents a serious disturbance to the Irish economy. In this regard, one of the most recent surveys shows only 5% of Irish businesses are actively engaging on Brexit-proofing, so it is extremely important they engage with Departments, statutory bodies and organisations. If they do not know the right questions to ask we must work with them as closely as we can to ensure they are Brexit-proofed.
These are issues that are also addressed in the select committee’s report. As the Government prepares a further paper on the economic implications of Brexit, building on the recent Government strategy document released on 2 May, the proposals of the report will be a very useful contribution. While preparation at Government level to Brexit-proof our economy is extremely important, businesses, and in particular SMEs who trade with the UK, must also begin preparing. It is concerning that in a recent InterTradeIreland survey, 95% of businesses surveyed had no plan for Brexit. The Government is also seeking to support these businesses. The Government’s enterprise agencies continue to work with companies, helping them to deal with Brexit, making them more competitive, diversifying market exposure, and up-skilling teams. The Government has put in place a trade and investment strategy, Ireland Connected: Trading and Investing in a Dynamic World, while Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia have also been strengthened so they are better placed to assist food producers and exporters face the challenges of Brexit. I encourage companies to avail of the free Brexit services available from Bord Bia, Enterprise Ireland and the local enterprise offices and to start preparing for Brexit.
In terms of next steps in the Article 50 process, what is most critical in the immediate term is to ensure that the withdrawal negotiations proceed in a constructive manner that will enable sufficient progress to be made on the key issues identified for the first phase. I welcome that the negotiations formally got under way on 19 June, and that an overall structure for the first phase of talks between the EU and the UK has now been agreed. In this regard, I welcome in particular the creation of a separate high level dialogue on Ireland and Northern Ireland under the authority of the negotiation co-ordinators. It is encouraging that the resolution of these issues will be the task of the most senior officials in the negotiating teams.
It is critical this positive momentum is maintained so that progress is made as quickly as possible on the many complex issues facing the negotiators. By continuing this constructive approach, a successful outcome, in the interests of all, remains achievable. In particular, we must make progress on the priority issues of citizens' rights, the UK financial liabilities and the set of issues on Northern Ireland, including avoiding a hard border. The sooner progress is made on these issues, the sooner discussions can begin on future relationship issues, including with regard to trade and customs arrangements, as well as transitional arrangements.
The next round of negotiations will take place on 17 July, and will continue over the coming months in advance of the European Council in October where decisions will be made by the Heads of State and Government on whether sufficient progress has been made, including on Irish specific issues, and on whether the conditions exist to move to phase 2, opening parallel discussions on the future relationship issues. Over the coming months, I will support the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Taoiseach in their continued engagement with the process, with a view to securing the best possible outcome for Ireland. I welcome the continued support and engagement demonstrated by both Houses of the Oireachtas, including the valuable and detailed work of committees such as the Seanad special select committee, and I again acknowledge its report as a valuable contribution to our continued analysis and debate. I thank all of those involved for their work and I look forward to working with the committee on Brexit. We have done more than any other country and we will continue to work with all stakeholders to ensure Ireland is impacted as little as possible.