I welcome this opportunity to update Members of the House on the significant developments that have taken place over recent months in respect of Brexit, a process whose pace has not slackened in recent weeks and months, despite the unprecedented global Covid-19 crisis. The withdrawal agreement provides the basis for the immediate way ahead. It has put in place the transition period that runs to the end of this year. This means that the UK, though no longer an EU member, is treated as a member of the Single Market and customs union. It protects EU and UK citizens and businesses and provides continuity while negotiations are under way to agree the basis for a new relationship.
Through the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, it upholds measures to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and to protect the integrity of the Single Market and Ireland's place in it. This is why it is important that, over this period, we see the full implementation of the withdrawal agreement and the protocol. As Michel Barnier has said, the faithful and effective implementation of the withdrawal agreement is "absolutely central" to the progress of the negotiations. This is key to protecting citizens and to ensuring peace and stability in Northern Ireland.
For the EU, Brexit represents a substantive change in our relationship with our closest neighbour. This is especially true for Ireland. It will fundamentally affect how we co-operate and do business together across many areas. To meet this challenge, over the coming months we have three broad interrelated streams of work, which I would like to address: first, future partnership negotiations; second, implementation of the existing withdrawal agreement; and, third, readiness work for the end of transition, whatever that may bring.
EU-UK negotiations have now begun on the future relationship, with two rounds having taken place so far. The most recent was from 18 to 22 April. As with so many areas, Covid-19 has created serious challenges. The second round of negotiations was delayed and meetings were eventually held by video conference. Further rounds are scheduled for next Monday, 11 May, and 1 June. These negotiations are between the Commission task force, led by Michel Barnier on behalf of the 27 member states, and the UK, led by chief negotiator, David Frost. They address a broad range of issues across 11 "tables", from trade in goods and services to transport and energy, from law enforcement to mobility, and many other issues. They also include important cross-cutting elements on level playing field and governance which are necessary to protect fair and open competition in any future EU-UK relationship. This is especially important given the proximity and depth of the trading relationship. The deal the EU is offering the UK is unique.
It is an unprecedented and broad economic partnership with zero tariffs and zero quotas on goods entering the Single Market, which is home to 450 million people.
The EU negotiating mandate was agreed at the General Affairs Council on 25 February. It reflects the breadth and ambition on the part of the EU for a close and deep partnership with the UK, providing a generous and fair foundation on which a new EU-UK relationship can be built. Of particular importance for Ireland is that the mandate maintains a focus on protecting the Good Friday Agreement and ensuring that issues arising from Ireland's unique geographic situation are addressed, as well as the common travel area. Protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process in all circumstances continue to be key priorities for Ireland. These priorities are shared by our EU partners and are also well understood by them. However, the limited level of ambition for the future partnership on the UK side will influence what it is possible to achieve.
Ireland is working as part of the EU 27 to ensure that our collective approach to these negotiations reflects our values and interests. Ireland inputted into these discussions to ensure that our priorities were reflected in terms of a free trade agreement with strong level playing field provisions, fisheries, transport arrangements and police and judicial co-operation. The atmosphere of the talks has been relatively constructive. However, following the second round of negotiations, Michel Barnier has been clear that significant gaps remain between the two sides on a number of fundamental issues. These include a level playing field, criminal justice and law enforcement co-operation, overall governance in relation to the implementation and maintenance of any agreement and, of course, fisheries. He said that while serious difficulties lie ahead, with political will, realism and mutual respect they can be surmounted.
More progress is needed for June, when the EU and UK will jointly take stock of the negotiations, as well as the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, ahead of a high-level conference with the UK at the end of June. Michel Barnier has emphasised that clear evidence is needed that the UK is advancing work on the agreed procedures and controls needed to operationalise the protocol. I spoke with Michel Barnier on Monday in advance of further future partnership negotiations next week. The Taoiseach, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, and I remain in contact with our colleagues in other EU member states as well as with the UK.
Time is tight, even more so given the challenges Covid-19 imposes. There have been calls for an extension to the transition period, including from significant sectors in the UK. Under the withdrawal agreement, such a decision, which is one to be made jointly between the EU and the UK, must be taken by 30 June. At this stage, it is not helpful to speculate. However, the UK Government has repeatedly stated that the transition period will end on 31 December and that it will not seek an extension. As a consequence, we continue to work to be ready for that date.
Work towards the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland, has now begun. Whatever the outcome of the current negotiations, the protocol will apply from the end of transition and it is important to say this. No deal on a trade agreement at the end of transition will not be the same as no deal if it happened before a withdrawal agreement was signed up to but it would still be hugely disruptive from a trade perspective. This ensures that we will avoid a hard border on this island come what may, protect the gains of the Good Friday Agreement and safeguard the integrity of the Single Market and Ireland's place in it.
This work will be carried forward through the joint committee, which held its first meeting on 30 March, and the specialised committee, which specifically focuses on the implementation of the Irish and Northern Irish protocol and which met on 30 April. Ireland participated in both meetings as part of the EU delegation. Discussions took place in a constructive atmosphere. The specialised committee took stock of work needed regarding implementation. Both sides agreed on establishing the joint consultative working group, which will provide a forum for discussion and information exchange in the application of the protocol.
Ireland welcomes these important steps.
Full implementation of what was agreed by the EU and the UK in the withdrawal agreement and the protocol is fundamental for all EU member states. A new partnership can only be built on the full and effective implementation of the withdrawal agreement and the protocol. The Commission last week published a paper which considers some of the practical steps that will be needed in the period ahead to implement the protocol. The protocol must be operational at the end of the transition period. That is important. It is critical, therefore, that work moves forward to put practical operational arrangements in place to implement the protocol. These must be communicated to economic operators in good time so they can also prepare. Clarity on this work is particularly important to give reassurance and certainty, particularly given all of the uncertainty that is linked with Covid-19 at the same time.
As already stated, some details will be finalised in the period ahead, including through the work of the joint and specialised committees. However, the broad outline of what is necessary is already clear. In many ways, these committees are about implementation, not any form of re-negotiation. That is for sure. This must include action to back up the important commitments in the protocol on continuity of rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement. I welcome the fact that the UK has stated that it will respect all its legal undertakings under the withdrawal agreement. It reiterated this at the meetings of the joint and specialised committees. It is important to state that because it is a very significant confirmation of the intent of the British Government.
Implementation of the protocol will mean some changes, however. Northern Ireland will remain in the UK customs territory but will continue to apply the rules of the European Union customs code and relevant EU legislation. The Commission has been clear that there will be a need for checks, some of which already exist, on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain. At the same time, it is important that the implementation of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland works for Northern Ireland, and for the all-island economy as a whole, in as smooth a manner as possible. Deputies will have seen commentary on the question of an EU office in Belfast. Article 12 of the protocol provides for EU representatives to be present for activities relating to the application and implementation of the protocol. I hope, and am confident, that agreement can be reached through the specialised and joint committees on how the EU involvement envisaged in the protocol can operate in an appropriate and sensible way. The framework is there to reach agreement once the practical implementation approach of the UK is clearer, and that is the step we need to focus on now. On other specialised committees, over the coming weeks the work of the other specialised committees will also be taken forward. This includes work relating to citizens' rights, financial commitments under the withdrawal agreement, Gibraltar and the sovereign air bases in Cyprus. Ireland will be paying close attention to this work, as it impacts on our interests also.
In terms of readiness, Brexit comes at a time when businesses are already struggling in the face of the challenges brought about by Covid-19. With less than seven months to the end of transition period, we remain committed to doing everything in our power to ensure that citizens and businesses are as ready as they can be for the end of transition. The Government moved swiftly and decisively in terms of Covid-19-related supports to businesses. Brexit preparation will necessarily be part of a wider business recovery agenda and we will look at how best business supports can be deployed in the context of Brexit challenges also. However, the UK has left the EU. At the end of the transition period, the UK will leave the customs union and Single Market. Even the best possible free trade agreement between the EU and UK will impact supply chains and trade flows and result in checks and controls in both directions on EU-UK trade and across the Irish Sea. Earlier today, I hosted a meeting of the Brexit stakeholders forum which provided an opportunity to hear from business representatives on how we can assist their members in the coming months. Supporting supply chains and trade flows remains a priority. Significant investment in infrastructure and systems in our ports and airports continues.
I have discussed the UK landbridge with Michel Barnier and he understands the importance of safeguarding this important route to market, which is into the rest of the EU. The Government's preparedness work will be closely aligned with progress on the negotiations and will evolve as elements of a deal become clearer. As the talks progress, we will roll out communications programmes covering specific areas. As before, Departments and agencies will continue to meet with key stakeholders.
Until the conclusion of the transition period at the end of 2020, there will not be immediate changes for business and citizens but, make no mistake, that change is coming and we need to be ready for it. Ireland faces these changes with the mutual solidarity and support of our EU partners and with all of the strength that EU membership brings. As we progress the negotiations on EU-UK future relations, and the implementation of the protocol, managing Brexit will remain a priority for the foreseeable future. We are determined to rebuild, strengthen and re-energise relationships North-South and east-west, for the benefit of all our businesses, and all our people.
The Government will ensure that Ireland's interests are advanced during the period ahead and that intensive work continues to prepare Ireland for our post-transition relationship with the UK.
The challenges we face in the context of Covid-19 make Brexit even more complicated in some ways. It also raises the stakes even higher, if they were not high enough already. The idea that we would knowingly allow a second significant negative impact on our economy and our trading opportunities with our closest neighbour after the impact of Covid-19, which has been and will continue to be significant, by not managing to agree a sensible trading arrangement between the EU and the UK is something that will focus minds in the months ahead.