My Department, and its agencies have, and continue to be, centrally involved in supporting businesses to prepare for the challenges of Brexit. Actions to get Ireland Brexit ready have already been taken by the Government, with dedicated measures announced in Budgets 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Over the course of the last three budgets I have introduced, through the enterprise agencies, an extensive suite of enterprise supports to assist firms to meet the challenges presented by Brexit. They range from liquidity support through short-term and longer-term loans, to restructuring aid for businesses in severe operating difficulties. The majority of enterprise supports are open to all companies, including SMEs and not just those that are clients of the enterprise agencies.
Specifically, these supports include:
- The €300 million Brexit Loan Scheme launched in March 2018 providing loans of up to 3 years to businesses impacted by Brexit. As of this month, 350 firms have been approved under this Scheme by the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland (SBCI) in the agrifood, retail and distribution, manufacturing, hospitality and transport sectors, and €15.73 million in loans to 63 businesses has been sanctioned at bank level;
- A €300 Longer Term Loan Scheme was approved in Budget 2019. Legislation was passed in December 2018 to provide for loans of 8 to 10 years for investments in fixed assets. This Scheme will be launched shortly and I would like to encourage businesses to start preparing their plans to avail of this facility;
- Enterprise Ireland is working closely with regionally important larger companies in exposed sectors such as food to support strategic investments to build resilience – EI invested €74 million in these businesses in 2018;
- An expanded network of overseas offices and in-market supports to help firms diversify markets and to consolidate market share in the UK where appropriate.
Furthermore, a strong focus is now being placed on upskilling and familiarisation around customs:
- As a result of the additional funding provided to the LEOs in 2019, additional support for training in customs procedures is being made available to companies, helping them navigate the post-Brexit trading environment, and supporting market diversification. I was pleased to launch the first of these Customs Training Workshops, along with the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, in Cavan on 25 February last.
- An online Enterprise Ireland ‘Customs Insight Course’ also helps businesses looking at customs for the first time to understand key concepts, documentation and processes. It advises on the key actions companies can take to prepare for Brexit and highlights the various supports available.
In addition, an EU State aid approved Rescue and Restructure Scheme is in place to deal with events such as sudden shocks. A recent announcement of an increase in sanction from €20 million to €200 million is most welcome and is a demonstration of the commitment of support from the EU Commission. This increased budget allows the Irish State to put in place a fund, should it be required, to offer both rescue aid and temporary restructuring aid to SMEs in financial difficulty or experiencing acute liquidity needs. The scheme will be activated if and when it is needed.
A further important aspect of supporting businesses in the face of a hard Brexit relates to a range of regulatory functions undertaken by regulatory agencies within my Department and additional funding was made available in the context of Budget 2019. The agencies involved are the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, the Health and Safety Authority, the National Standards Authority of Ireland, the Irish National Accreditation Board and the Irish Auditing and Accounting Supervisory Authority. These agencies play a vital role in supporting businesses to operate effectively, especially in the area of certification and standardisation.
In addition, over the course of the last 18 months, officials from my Department have been in regular dialogue with the European Commission about the scope of additional enterprise support measures that we may require in a hard Brexit.
In January I met with Commission Vestager to outline the consequences of any disorderly exit on the Irish economy and the Commissioner acknowledged that Ireland is more exposed than any other EU member State to the impacts of Brexit.
The Commissioner committed to providing the highest level of cooperation with Ireland including a dedicated team to deal with Irish cases in an expedited way and intensified engagement between my Department and DG Competition continues.
In terms of a legislative response to Brexit, my Department is sponsoring Part 3 of the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2019. This part increases the ability of Enterprise Ireland to provide a competitive and flexible offering to its client companies in terms of R&D grants and will allow Enterprise Ireland to provide low interest debt instruments.
In summary, I am satisfied that my Department, its offices and agencies, are preparing to the greatest extent possible for Brexit.