Thursday, 9 May 2019

Questions (7)

Pat the Cope Gallagher

Question:

7. Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the timeline of his interactions with the EU in relation to his submission for assistance for the seafood sector in the event of a no-deal Brexit; the indicative amount of contingency funding he is seeking from the EU in the event of a UK crash-out from the EU; the state of readiness of such assistance should the seafood sector have to avail of it post October 2019; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19852/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

The industry and I are concerned about the impact of Brexit. Further to a question I asked of the Minister in January this year, I ask him what steps he has taken to ensure the marine sector is fully protected as far as possible in the event of Brexit at the end of October.

Both my officials and I have had intensive discussions with the European Commission, other relevant member states and stakeholders regarding the potential negative impact of a disorderly or no-deal Brexit on the Irish fishing industry and the wider seafood sector.  These discussions intensified in recent months and were based on preparatory work already done.  While the immediate threat of a no-deal outcome has been averted, the preparatory work and the discussions will continue.

The key issues in a no-deal situation, which I have stressed in all discussions, are the potential loss of access for Irish and other EU vessels to the UK fishing zone, the need to ensure ongoing protection of fish stocks in the waters around Ireland from a subsequent increase in fishing activity and potential mitigation measures for the seafood sector at EU level.  It is also important to be aware that in such a no-deal situation, the EU and Ireland could also face a loss of quota share.

Throughout the discussions, I emphasised the necessity for a co-ordinated European response to ensure that there would be proportionate and equitable use of mitigation measures overseen by the Commission. The outcome of these discussions can be seen in the EU Brexit contingency plan that was published on 10 April.  This highlights fisheries as one of the most immediately critical issues facing the EU in a no-deal Brexit.  We now have identified and agreed co-ordinated and fully prepared measures that will be immediately available to address a no-deal Brexit on 31 October if the UK were to decide to deny EU vessels access to UK waters.

As I have stated previously, I am seeking additional EU funds to support these mitigation measures if they ever become necessary, which of course I hope they do not. Such financial discussions are ongoing and there are many variables at play, but I assure the Deputy that the seafood sector will, along with agriculture, be a key priority for this Government.

The Minister will agree that either a no-deal Brexit or an orderly one will be serious for the sector because we are all aware that 60% of our mackerel, 40% of our nephrops and, on average, approximately 30% of our fish are caught in UK waters.

The Minister has mentioned the co-ordinated response, mitigation measures and funding. I want him to clarify if the funding will be additional rather than a rebranding of the funding that is available under regulation 508/2014 of the European Parliament and the Council which relates to the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, EMFF. I understand that some of those funds would be siphoned off to deal with the Brexit situation, and that is not acceptable. There must be additional funds.

Much of the focus has rightly been on agriculture, but the same focus must be brought to bear on fisheries. There must be contingency plans for every eventuality, and it is never premature to plan. What concerns me most is that, at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council meeting last December, we were told that all of the fish could be caught, irrespective of the 30 March deadline, until the end of the year. That was only an informal agreement and the result has been that the landing of fish for the year has been front-loaded. The Minister and I both know the consequences of that. There is not a square inch of cold store in this country. The industry caught them all before 29 March. Greater assurances should be given and we should learn from that.

I am acutely aware of the latter point and appreciate the difficulties to which that has given rise. The Deputy and I have engaged on that issue. Those difficulties were hard to avoid because, as the Deputy alluded to, more than 60% of mackerel, the most valuable stock in our pelagic sector, is landed from UK waters. The fear of a crash-out by the end of March drove the industry, understandably, to catch that stock in the first quarter of the year. That is regrettable but understandable because the industry feared being locked out of UK waters.

Our response on the broader issue is, in the context of the future trading relationship, to ensure that the fishery sector does not get isolated, because the scale of the challenge for the fishing industry is almost existential, given the amount of pelagic, prawns and others that are caught in UK waters and the consequences if boats are displaced into the Irish exclusive economic zone, EEZ. There are implications and consequences that would arise from that for the sustainability of those stocks in our waters. That is critically important.

We are still engaged with the Commission about the funding that is necessary, and I share the Deputy's view that redirecting funding from the EMFF is not the appropriate response. The Commission has a co-ordination role and must ensure there is equity to the consequences for all member states. It also requires funding because we could not countenance a situation where we were ceasing fishing activity temporarily while others were fishing in our waters, visible from shore. The equity that would be required would require EU funding.

In the Minister's deliberations with Mr. Barnier, is there still an inextricable link between fisheries negotiations and access to markets? When considering the necessary funding that will be required, emphasis must be given to the producers, processors and services sectors and not forgetting the many seasonal workers who would have had such work for many weeks throughout the year, none of which is available now. All of those must be taken into consideration and, in short, there are considerable consequences across the board which we must ensure that the Minister protects.

In direct engagement with the Commissioner and the lead negotiator, Mr. Michel Barnier, and indeed in negotiations that we facilitated between the industry and Mr. Barnier, we are satisfied that the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration ensure that the link is there between trade generally and the fishing industry. We will not find ourselves in a situation where fisheries is dealt with in isolation because it must be acknowledged that the UK holds the aces in that context. In the broader context, Britain will want things from us, including passports for their financial services, access to open skies and the broader trade relationship. We feel that our best interests are served by having fisheries as part of the broader trade agreement and we are satisfied that remains the situation.