Ireland launches omnibus bill to mitigate ‘lose-lose’ of no-deal Brexit

Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney [Paul McErlane/EPA]

Ireland unveiled its contingency plans for a ‘no deal’ Brexit on Friday (22 February), publishing an omnibus bill of fifteen pieces of legislation across nine government departments, covering citizen’s rights, tax and migration, education, healthcare and transport sectors.

While both UK and EU negotiators maintain their determination to finalise a Withdrawal Agreement, there is just over a month until the UK is due to formally leave the EU on 29 March.

Ireland has been in the eye of the storm throughout the Brexit negotiations, primarily because of the status of Northern Ireland. The question of how to avoid a ‘hard border’ between the North and the Irish Republic is still the last significant stumbling block between negotiators.

The UK is insisting on legally binding changes to the ‘backstop’ in the draft Withdrawal Agreement which, as it stands, would see Northern Ireland stay in the EU’s customs union unless a new trade agreement is struck by December 2020.

Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney said that the bill, which he said had cross-party support, was “the product of a root-and-branch trawl of our laws to determine what changes will be needed if the UK becomes a third country overnight.”

For example, the bill includes provisions to allow patients in Ireland to continue to be reimbursed if they get medical treatment in the UK, and for Irish pensioners living in the UK to continue receiving payments.

However, some reciprocal arrangements are set to cease. Earlier this week, Ireland’s Road Safety Authority stated that UK driving licences of people living in Ireland would not be recognised after 29 March unless the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement is finalised.

Of all the EU-27 countries, Ireland is expected to take the single biggest economic hit from the UK’s exit from the bloc, and this will be intensified if the UK leaves without an agreement.

“A no deal Brexit will be a lose, lose, lose for the UK, Ireland and the rest of the EU,” Coveney told a press conference in Dublin on Friday, admitting that “we cannot offset all the damage it will do”.

“My only desire is to see this legislation sit on the shelf,” he said.

However, Sammy Wilson, the Brexit spokesman for Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, told Sky News that the bill’s proposals to support Irish businesses and sectors such as the electricity market were “totally contrary” to EU state aid rules, which prevent governments from assisting businesses through subsidies and grants.

“I think this really shows the EU negotiators have been taking the British negotiators for a ride,” he said.

Wilson also complained that the omnibus bill does not include provisions on cross-border trade.

“There is not one word about how they intend to deal with trade across the border. We have always said that there is no need for hard border infrastructure and it seems that, even in the face of a no-deal, the Irish government is not legislating for such a hard border,” said Wilson.

Prime Minister Theresa May is set to hold further talks with European Council chief Donald Tusk on the margins of the EU-Arab League summit in Sharm el-Sheik next week, although an EU official warned on Friday that there would be “no deal in the desert”.

The UK and European governments have stepped up their contingency planning for ‘no deal’ since the autumn.

UK government departments have published more than 50 sectoral contingency plans for a ‘no deal’ Brexit, while the European Commission has issued guidance to businesses and citizens, and a raft of legislative amendments for fast-track approval by MEPs and ministers ahead of 29 March.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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