THIS week I am leading a trade mission of more than 35 Irish companies to the South African market. We are looking for business and I am confident we will find it.
It seems popular to be a pessimist about Europe these days, but for those who wish to look, there are good reasons for optimism that it will overcome the challenges it faces. And the place to start looking is Ireland.
Supported by our friends in Europe, our economy has stabilised, we are putting our economic house in order and we are trading our way to recovery.
After three consecutive years of economic contraction, Ireland returned to growth last year at a level of 1.4%. We expect to see modest continuing growth this year, strengthening next year and onwards. This is driven by exports, which increased by more than 5% last year and are now above pre-crisis levels.
Worldwide, firms continue to make Ireland their choice to set up operations to reach a European market of about 500-million consumers. We are the only English-speaking member of the eurozone. We are a premier destination for world-beating companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and hundreds of others. Many of these companies have undertaken major expansions of their Irish operations and of their research and development activities in Ireland.
These are concrete votes of confidence in the Irish workforce, our economic recovery, and the European and regional market. It is our goal to become the best small country in the world in which to do business. We are already consistently ranked in the top 10 in the world in terms of ease of doing business and we won a record number of inward investments into Ireland last year.
Increasingly, our home-grown companies are coming to the fore. During this week’s trade and investment mission, we aim to further develop our dynamic trade relations with South Africa. Last year, Ireland-South Africa trade came to more than R12bn and we are confident that this figure is set to grow further this year and the next. We have more than 180 Irish companies doing business in South Africa — 30 of them with local subsidiaries providing employment for more than 13,000 South Africans. I am confident that this figure will also grow.
The potential for our two countries together is undeniable — the business gateway to Europe meets the business gateway to Africa. For many growing Irish companies, South Africa is the obvious starting point to enter the African market. And Ireland is the perfect place for South African companies to begin in Europe.
Nobody is pretending that the challenges we face are not significant. In Ireland, we are dealing with the after-effects of a major property sector bubble in which our banks were heavily affected. The scale of the bank debt we have taken on as sovereign debt is severe and we are undertaking painful cuts in public spending. The economic uncertainty in our major export markets in Europe and the US are strong headwinds for our export-led economy.
The challenges at a European level are also serious, but we have an ambitious agenda of work to further stabilise our joint economic and political institutions, including through the establishment of a common framework of banking supervision across Europe.
The fact is that Europe isn’t going to disappear. The depth of commitment to the ideal of European solidarity and stability is greater than the problems we face. The award of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union (EU) may have surprised some, but the truth is that the EU has forged a globally unprecedented level of common purpose in a continent that had seemed to be permanently ravaged by war. It remains a compelling model — although always a work in progress, of course — and a committed partner for the African Union.
Ireland holds the presidency of the EU in the first half of next year. We are proud to play our part in supporting the momentum for Europe to face its challenges, strengthen its institutions and reaffirm its leading global role.
We know that we live in a changing and multipolar world. We need to adapt to the future. And the future is arriving quickly in the form of a new global economic balance in which South Africa and other nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America have a very strong voice. Alongside them will be an Ireland and a Europe that will have weathered the storm and emerged stronger than before.
• Costello is Ireland’s minister of state for trade and development.