17 Dec 2019, 11.00

The Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union today concludes its work with a report urging the EU to show patience and flexibility with the UK in the next phase of the Brexit process.

With the UK now due to formally exit the EU on 31 January 2020, the Seanad Committee in its Brexit Progress Report expects the negotiations on a future EU-UK relationship to be long and complicated – despite the ambitious timetable of the British Government to conclude talks in just 10 months rather than seek an extension to the transition period.

The Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union was established in early 2017 to issue a one-time report on possible solutions to the many problems that Brexit could present, including:

  • the implications for the Irish economy of hard and soft Brexit scenarios;
  • relations between Ireland and Northern Ireland;
  • the citizenship rights of people in Northern Ireland;
  • the Common Travel Area and the Border, and movement of goods, services and people between the State and Northern Ireland and between Ireland and Great Britain;
  • the effects on agriculture and fisheries, transport energy and communications, and welfare, health and education.

The Committee issued its first report with 99 recommendations in July 2017. The work of the Committee has been extended six times in response to the extension of the Brexit process beyond March 29, 2019. A second report summarising the Committee’s activities to the end of 2018 was published in February of this year.

In this third and final report, the Committee welcomes the Revised Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland in the Withdrawal Agreement agreed between the UK and EU in October 2019 and the joint commitment by the EU and UK to avoiding a hard border. The revised Protocol replaced the ‘Irish backstop’ with a new dual tariff scheme, along with a selection of EU trading rules applying to the island of Ireland. This will ensure there are no border checks and no tariffs on goods traded between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

However, the Committee notes that there are many details to be clarified on the implementation of the proposed arrangements, but it is a step in the right direction. The Committee also hopes that the Draft Withdrawal Agreement will be promptly approved by the House of Commons, so that a no-deal exit on 31 January 2020 can be avoided.

Committee Chairman, Senator Neale Richmond said: “We must also remember that this is only the beginning. Once the UK has left, negotiations will start on free trade agreement or something similar. These talks are likely to be long and complicated, continuing well beyond the end of 2020, and will require difficult decisions to be made on both sides.The EU negotiating a free trade agreement with a departed Member State is unprecedented, so it is difficult to predict with any level of certainty the potential timeframe.”

He added: “The Draft Withdrawal Agreement provides for a transition period up to December 2020,with the option to request an extension of up to two years. If the UK leaves the EU on 31 January 2020 with the Draft Withdrawal Agreement in place, and does not seek an extension to the transition period, this leaves very little time to negotiate and agree a sufficiently comprehensive free trade agreement that secures all parties’ interests. It is the opinion of the Committee that flexibility should be considered in this circumstance.”

Over the summer, the Committee invited stakeholder groups to update members on the status of sectoral preparations and to re-assess the implications of Brexit for Ireland. It was made clear to the Committee during these engagements that the lack of clarity on the direction of Brexit has caused huge uncertainty and had a significant impact for a number of sectors, especially the beef and dairy sectors. The Committee also heard that Brexit had already had a significant impact on the Irish economy, with growth weaker than it would have been if the UK had not voted to leave the EU.

The Committee also heard of uncertainty on the issue of citizenship rights for all the people of Northern Ireland, and concerns that, despite a Memorandum of Understanding between Ireland and the UK on the Common Travel Area, this may not provide enough legal certainty following Brexit.

Senator Richmond added: “In the absence of certainty on the final outcome of Brexit, it is important for us to focus on mitigating potential challenges, while also looking to secure the best possible future relationship with the UK.”

“This Committee will stand dissolved on 31 December 2019. I believe that the work carried out over the last two and a half years by this this Committee has been extremely valuable and worthwhile, and I would like to commend the Members for their hard work and dedication.”

The Brexit Progress Report is available on the Oireachtas website.

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