Government two weeks from pivotal Brexit decisions

Three-day talks to cover economic interventions and state aid for vulnerable industries

Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photograph: James Forde

Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photograph: James Forde

 

The Government will begin making major decisions to prepare the country for a no-deal Brexit – such as saving vulnerable industries and companies from collapse – within a fortnight.

Ministers have been given a “sobering” overview of moves to be taken in the coming weeks as Brexit day approaches without any breakthrough in the current impasse between the EU and UK.

British prime minister Theresa May will meet European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels today as the UK prepares to outline the legally binding changes to the Brexit deal. Mrs May is seeking to address MPs’ concerns about the Northern Ireland backstop, the guarantee that there will be no hard border even if future EU-UK trade talks fail.

The commission says the EU wants to help the prime minister to win a majority at Westminster for the deal but has ruled out renegotiating the legally binding withdrawal agreement.

At Cabinet in Dublin yesterday, Ministers were told that key decisions to prepare for a no-deal Brexit on March 29th would have to be taken at the start of next month.

Sources said this included making “economic interventions and state aid applications to save industries and companies”.

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The Cabinet will hold three meetings within five days – on March 4th, 5th and 8th – one of which is expected to be held over dinner at Farmleigh House in the Phoenix Park.

Sources said the Cabinet was told key decisions on how to prepare ports and airports, and to support businesses most at risk from a no-deal Brexit, must be taken at that point. Another meeting will not be held until March 20th due to Ministers travelling abroad for St Patrick’s Day.

While it is understood that no specifics were discussed, well-placed sources said there was a reference to the agri-food sector.

Food tariffs

Michael Gove, the UK environment secretary, yesterday confirmed food imports would be subject to tariffs in a no-deal scenario. The Irish Farmers’ Association said this “demonstrates the gravity of the situation for the Irish farming sector”.

The UK has not yet confirmed what level of tariffs it will apply, but if they are based on World Trade Organisation levels, then food will be the sector hit most severely.

Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed has said tariffs on Irish food imports into the UK would come to about €1.7 billion a year.

Martin Fraser, the secretary to the Government, is understood to have outlined the activities of the coming weeks to Ministers yesterday. Other key events mentioned at the meeting included further votes in the House of Commons and the publication by the British government of tariff schedules that will apply in a no-deal scenario.

Ministers also approved the omnibus legislation that will be needed in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The legislation will be published later this week and is set to be debated in the Dáil, with a view to its passage through the Oireachtas being completed by Brexit day.

Sources said there was still significant distance between what the UK was asking for and what the EU could offer by way of assurances on the backstop.

The British government has yet to put forward a “firm ask”, or definite idea on how to proceed. It is understood to still be talking about ideas Brussels has already ruled out, such as a time limit on the backstop or a unilateral exit clause from its provisions.

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