As the House will be fully aware, not least through the important work of the Seanad Special Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, Brexit poses a unique and unprecedented challenge for Ireland. Ireland will be more affected than any other member state by the UK's departure from the EU. While we respect the UK's decision to leave, we certainly regret it.
Brexit will bring changes for all of us. Having joined the EU together with the UK, our shared membership of the EU has been an important and positive factor in the complex history of our relations. Within the Union, Ireland and Britain have grown closer. Our priority now is to ensure that this progress is not set back.
The negotiations have at times been difficult, which is not surprising. Brexit is, after all, a complex process of disentangling laws, trade agreements and co-operation that go back decades and touch on almost all state activities. Although we had all hoped to reach an agreement in time for the European Council in October, regrettably, this was not possible. A number of issues remain, most notably the backstop on avoiding a hard border on the island. The negotiations are continuing but it is clear that they need to make decisive progress quickly if a withdrawal agreement is to be concluded and ratified before the UK leaves the EU on 29 March. Mr. Barnier has sought to "de-dramatise" the backstop and focus on its technical aspects while also seeking to address the UK's stated need for a UK-wide customs arrangement as a means to find a solution and compromise. This de-dramatisation would not alter the overall goal of the backstop, which is to ensure there is no return of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland under any circumstances. The EU has listened to UK concerns and has worked to address them. Mr. Barnier has displayed imagination within the bounds of his mandate to seek agreement but he has been given clear guidelines within which to operate and he must do so. I have complete confidence that he will do his utmost to achieve an agreement which is in line with the commitments provided by the UK in the joint progress report of last December and again in Prime Minister May's letter to President Tusk last March. Equally, our fellow member states have displayed unwavering solidarity and support for Ireland. I would like to express my sincere gratitude to them for that and for their understanding of the importance of the border issue to protecting the peace process.
The invisible border was made possible in part due to the UK and Ireland's membership of the Single Market and customs union. This is of critical importance to the more than 7,000 businesses that trade across the Border from north to south supporting more than 160,000 jobs. Any introduction of customs checks or divergence in regulatory regimes would create an impediment to the operation of these businesses. However, the question of the Border in the Brexit negotiations is not solely about economics. It is also about people's lives and protecting the gains and benefits of the peace process. Our shared membership of the EU and the elimination of all checks at the Border have been a vital support to the hard-won peace. Crossing the Border has become a routine part of life and every month, there are almost two million car crossings. Behind these statistics are people going to work, to study, to see a doctor, to see a friend or to do business. All these simple everyday contacts and connections are integral to communities in the Border region and to harnessing the opportunities of peace over the past 20 years. This is why that intensive work is also continuing on ensuring the common travel area will function post-Brexit and that the rights of people in Northern Ireland will be protected.
There has been a lot of speculation in recent days about deals involving a time-limited backstop or the ability of the UK to unilaterally withdraw from the backstop. When I met Secretary of State Raab and Minister Lidington last week, I made it clear, as did the Taoiseach in his phone call yesterday with Prime Minister May, that while there is an openness to consider proposals for a review mechanism, it must be clear that the outcome of any such review could not involve a unilateral decision to end the backstop. We also recalled the prior commitments made by the UK that the backstop must apply "unless and until" alternative arrangements are agreed. We expect the UK Government to honour the commitments it has made in full.
While the withdrawal agreement and the backstop are understandably the focus and priority right now as we seek a deal, agreement on the framework for the future relationship between the EU and the UK is also important for Ireland. The Government has consistently said that we want the closest possible future relationship between the EU and the UK. At the same time, such a relationship must respect the integrity of the EU's Single Market, a single market that has brought significant benefits for this country. It is in our vital interests that it is fully protected. Difficulties remain in finalising the withdrawal agreement but it remains the Government's view that a no-deal scenario is still unlikely. No one wants a no-deal end game here. Everybody loses in that scenario. However, it is our responsibility to prepare for all scenarios and our activities in this respect are well advanced. In July, the Government’s preparedness and contingency process transitioned from the planning stage to the implementation stage. As a result, work intensified across all Departments to prepare for both deal and no deal scenarios. Each Department is preparing detailed actions plans for both these outcomes.
We are particularly focused on the areas where the Government, rather than the EU, has direct responsibility, and on measures that need to be taken on an east-west basis, such as customs and veterinary controls at our ports and airports. These preparations have been supported by recent budgets, which aim to assist businesses and farmers to ensure they receive the necessary support required to adjust to the changes that Brexit will bring. For example, budget 2019 included a new future growth loan scheme of up to €300 million for SMEs and the agrifood sector.
No matter what the deal is, Brexit will bring change. We cannot be certain about the exact form of this change as negotiations continue but it is important that we prepare for what we do know and plan for all eventualities. It is important that others do the same, in particular, our businesses, big and small. To this end, my Department has co-ordinated a nationwide Getting Ireland Brexit Ready public information campaign to assist the public in understanding how Brexit will affect them and their businesses.
As part of this, we launched a revamped website and dedicated social media channels. Last month, my Department co-ordinated four "Getting Ireland Brexit Ready" roadshows in Cork, Galway, Monaghan and Dublin. These events, supported by Government agencies, provided local businesses with information on the supports available to them and provided practical advice on how to best manage the changes Brexit will bring. More than 2,000 citizens or business people attended these events. We will continue to engage with the people of Ireland in an open and honest manner, and we will continue to provide the appropriate assistance to businesses and individuals who need it. In parallel, we will continue to engage closely with the European Commission and our EU partners both on the negotiations and on Brexit preparedness, given Ireland’s unique position.
I wish to refer to our bilateral relationship with the UK. Many Senators may have heard at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference last week that both Governments have agreed to develop new ambitious structures which demonstrate the strength and depth of the unique relationship between Ireland and Britain. I am very pleased that both Governments have committed to annual summits, led by the Taoiseach and Prime Minister, which will allow for broad and deep co-operation across a wide range of policy areas. We look forward to developing detailed proposals in this respect over the coming months, ahead of the first summit, which will most likely be held in the second half of next year.