A good standing in the EU

IRELAND’S Ambassador to Slovakia Kathryn Coll believes that the key to benefiting from EU membership is the same in bad economic times as in good: it is to be committed and active at the heart of the EU along with being engaged across the EU agenda, but most of all to be perceived as a member in good standing. According to her, becoming adept at accessing EU support should not be pursued in isolation from a member state’s overall standing in the Union.

Irish Ambassador Kathryn Coll
Irish Ambassador Kathryn Coll (Source: Jana Liptáková)

IRELAND’S Ambassador to Slovakia Kathryn Coll believes that the key to benefiting from EU membership is the same in bad economic times as in good: it is to be committed and active at the heart of the EU along with being engaged across the EU agenda, but most of all to be perceived as a member in good standing. According to her, becoming adept at accessing EU support should not be pursued in isolation from a member state’s overall standing in the Union.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Coll about Ireland’s EU experience, EU funds as one of the remedies to ease the impacts of the economic downturn, labour market changes, bridges between academia and business, as well as tourism potential between Ireland and Slovakia.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Irish voters rejected the Lisbon treaty in a referendum a year ago. In October, they might return to the ballot boxes. What have been the most discussed EU-related issues in Ireland recently? Is there a fiery public debate about the referendum in your country?
Kathryn Coll (KC): The Irish Government plans to hold another referendum on the Lisbon Treaty at the start of October; it expects that the required legislation will be passed by 9 July. This follows a decision of the 18-19 June European Council, which gave the Taoiseach [the head of government of Ireland], Brian Cowen, the guarantees he felt were necessary for him to call and win a second referendum. The guarantees address the concerns of the Irish people related to taxation, neutrality and ethical issues and they will be incorporated into the EU Treaties. The Taoiseach has made plain that he will lead a vigorous Yes campaign and that he is not prepared to contemplate defeat; that a yes vote is fundamental to Ireland’s national interest; and that every citizen has a responsibility in the referendum to make a decision in the national interest. Nor will it be left to the politicians.

A new, independent, non-party civil society grouping Ireland for Europe, launched on 21 June, will promote a yes vote, actively mobilising voters. While the issues addressed by the guarantees will assuredly still be part of the debate, core issues such as jobs and investment are expected to come centre stage this time. The challenge will be to convince the people once again that a place at the heart of the EU is central to Ireland’s wellbeing, especially its economic wellbeing, and that the referendum must not be used to punish the government for its tough decisions on the economy.

TSS: The interest of Europeans in elections to the European Parliament has been dropping Europe-wide. In fact, Slovakia posted the lowest turnout in Europe. What do you think governments can do to boost the interest of their citizens in EU issues?
KC: A little more acknowledgement of the 2.7 percent increase achieved in Slovakia’s participation rate compared to the 2004 European Parliament elections and particularly of the intensive and very creditable information campaigns run by the EP and Commission offices, for example, would not be out of order. Foreign Affairs Minister Lajčák identified three reasons for the still-low turnout: a level of satisfaction, which means that Slovaks don’t feel the need to change anything; insufficient contact with EU institutions, which are seen as too remote; and the insufficient contribution of media and politicians which results in people getting too little information.

The interest of Irish citizens in EU issues is not unrelated to our experience of having had to submit each successive EU Treaty to referendum to our people. Over 36 years of EU membership, people have come to understand that the EU agenda bears directly upon the domestic agenda, though this is not invariably welcome. The roles and inter- relationship of the Council, Commission and Parliament are not easy to communicate. Small countries in particular need to see the Commission as the guarantor that the interests of all Member States, large and small, inform legislative proposals and executive actions. This has always been important for Ireland and we are pleased to have got agreement last December that every Member State will continue to nominate a Commissioner. Where there is a lively and critical media, building citizens’ interest in EU issues is a function in the first place of the priority that governments, that are deeply connected to their citizens, are seen to give to EU issues. I expect to see a higher Slovak participation rate in the 2014 European Parliament elections.

TSS: Slovakia still seems to be a beginner in drawing EU funds and fully using the benefits of its EU membership. Ireland has often been dubbed as an example of EU membership success. How can countries – now, in a period of economic downturn – benefit from their EU membership?
KC: In our experience, the key to benefiting from EU membership is the same in bad economic times as in good: it is to be committed and active at the heart of the EU, engaged across the EU agenda, most of all to be perceived as a member state in good standing. Becoming adept at accessing EU supports is not an objective to be pursued in isolation from a member state’s overall standing in the Union. Slovakia’s difficult transition from communism may be at an end but it has been a member of the EU club of democratic states based on the rule of law and human rights for just five years. Key aspects of Ireland’s pre-EU accession experience were not the same as Slovakia’s. For decades before 1973, we had been an independent state and a functioning democracy. From the late 1950s, we had seen an open market, incentives to foreign direct investment and public investment in education – along with agriculture – as the path to economic development and social progress. Nevertheless, it took Ireland a multiple of 5 years of membership to become an EU success story. We were honoured that the EU10, as they worked towards joining the EU, saw Ireland as a member state to learn from and emulate. The Irish Government responded. From the beginning of 2006 to date, 32 Slovak civil servants will have received short training courses at the Institute of Public Administration in Dublin in EU skills and, latterly, in the financial management of EU structural funds specifically and in the management and monitoring of EU-funded operational programmes generally. We believe that this training, which Slovak officials share with counterparts in other new member states and in accession and candidate countries, is adding to the capacity of these administrations to access EU funding and to use it to optimum effect. In this context, compliance with EU governance standards, for example in relation to transparent public tendering, is of course key.

TSS: According to the latest statistics, more than 420,000 foreigners work in Ireland. In March, Ireland announced that it would not lift restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian workers accessing the country’s labour market until 2011. What is the reason behind the move?
KC: The March decision to continue to require that nationals of Bulgaria and Romania apply for work permits in order to participate in the Irish labour market was made as part of Ireland’s managed economic migration policy. It was shaped by our experience of the very significant inflow of EU10 nationals since May 2004 and by the impact migration has had, specifically on our labour market. The huge economic challenge now facing Ireland in the short to medium term was a factor in the decision.

It is important to go back a few years. Slovak readers will not have forgotten that Ireland, alone with the UK and Sweden, ended all immigration restrictions on nationals of the 10 new EU members right from the date of their EU accession on 1 May 2004. It was the right decision and we are proud of it. It drove a rapid development of Ireland’s relations with the EU countries whose people most availed of it, principally Poland, Slovakia and Lithuania. For the first time in our modern history, Ireland experienced a sudden, significant influx of people. In a period of rapid economic growth, Ireland attracted a disproportionate number of the new EU migrant workers: in the years 2004-2006, they were issued with well over a quarter of a million work permits and came to account for 4 percent of our workforce.

The impact of opening our labour market to the 10 in 2004 was widely seen as positive for the Irish economy and for the country. Even so, migration into Ireland clearly could not continue at such a level without putting pressure on social services and the employment market. Nor could the positive impact be expected to hold true in a different, more difficult economic climate. With the benefit of initial research on the various issues raised by migration and having monitored migration levels in order to determine what would be best for our economy in the years from 2007 onwards, the Government decided against giving additional free access to the labour market when Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU.

TSS: Back in 2006, an estimated 25,000-30,000 Slovaks worked in Ireland. Has this number changed? What has been Ireland’s experience with Slovak labour? What, in your opinion, are currently the major challenges of the labour markets of countries Europe-wide?
KC: Between your EU accession year, 2004, and the end of May 2009, my country issued a cumulative total of 44,562 PPSN (Personal Public Service Numbers) to Slovak citizens enabling them to work in Ireland; over 25,132 of these issued in the three years to the end of 2006. At first, the rate of increase in work permits was dramatic: the 2004 number of 5,187 was almost 21 times the 2003 figure of 248; the 2006 number, 10,687, more than double the 2004 level. In 2007, the number was 8,375 and in 2008 it was 4,995; in the five months to the end of May this year, it was just 874. While the number of work permits issued does not equate to the number of Slovaks working in Ireland at a particular time, the trend of issuance after 2006 would indicate that the number of Slovaks now in Ireland would be below the 2006 level, in the range 22,000-25,000 perhaps. Eurostat figures show that 2 percent of Slovakia’s working population moved abroad to work after 2004, with 11 percent of that number going to Ireland (third after the UK and the Czech Republic). Anecdotal evidence suggests that some 5,000 Slovaks may have returned home in the past year.

TSS: Has the tourism potential between Slovakia and Ireland been fully explored? What can Slovakia offer to an average Irish tourist? Is tourism a two-way street between the nations? Do you feel that the Irish and Slovaks know each other outside of some of the obvious stereotypes? Also, the Irish airline Ryanair is to start regular flights to Edinburgh, its eleventh destination from Bratislava, on September 24. Has the existence of regular flights affected tourism and business links in any way?

The tourism potential between the two countries has by no means been fully exploited; certainly the Irish side has not yet targeted the Slovak tourist in a focused way. As we’ve seen, since 2004 significant numbers of Slovaks have migrated to Ireland. As a regular user of the Ryanair connection, I see at first hand the extent of travel by Slovaks between the two capitals. Visits by Slovaks working in Ireland to family members at home accounts for the vast bulk of it but there is surely also some level of family visits by Slovaks into Ireland and even of visits by Irish people to Slovaks they’ve worked and become friends with and who have returned to this country. Such exchanges actually involve limited use of hotel nights, restaurant meals, excursions or other tourism products and they happen almost entirely on an individual basis.

Tourism between Ireland and Slovakia will not be a two-way street any more than it is between Slovakia and Egypt or Greece or Croatia, where the traffic is essentially out of Slovakia.

Ireland’s coastline bears comparison with any of these, however it will be some time before Slovaks
choose cooler climates for their summer holidays. Their skiing can be done at and close to home. Slovaks should know that Ireland is great for hiking, golf , horse riding and most sports as well as music and cultural events; our strongest card, however, is Irish people’s easy aptitude for fun and friendship – for us, a stranger is just a friend you have yet to meet. For me, for better and for worse, stereotypes apply to the Irish rather than to the Slovaks. In my short experience, Slovaks improve on acquaintance; this is to their credit. Irish people in greater numbers could come to appreciate Slovakia’s mountains, countryside, caves and castles if language were less of an issue and if the service as well as the tourist product we expect were available countrywide at prices pitched to the average, not just the high-end, visitor.

The existence of low cost scheduled flights has been and remains crucial to business and tourism links between Ireland and Slovakia. A review just issued showed that Ireland’s tourism revenue from mainland Europe now almost equals that from Britain. The rapid expansion of direct flights from Europe has been a key factor.

TSS: One of Slovakia’s problems with its academia is that it has been disconnected from the needs of business. Are there effective ties between Irish education and research institutions and businesses? Slovakia has been trying to reform its education system. How successful has Ireland been in this area?
KC: The objective of developing close, mutually sustaining ties between business and higher education institutions has been built into Ireland’s economic strategy for at least two decades.
The semi-state bodies responsible for attracting foreign investment and for promoting indigenous Irish enterprises found responsive partners on campus. Units of newer universities and institutes of technology developed since the 1970s worked with advanced foreign companies based in contiguous industrial zones. From such “incubation centres”, new Irish companies emerged which had a positive impact disproportionate to their size or annual turnover. Long underfunded, R&D has now truly come to be seen as pivotal to the government's objective of building a smart economy, one that is characterised by a high-value, research-intensive multinational community alongside a thriving set of innovative Irish companies. Hundreds of millions of euros are being spent on, for example, venture funding and tax incentives for new R&D-based companies. To better concentrate expertise and investment, the two oldest universities in Dublin recently announced an Innovation Alliance which aims to create a critical mass of research in science, technology and innovation with increased focus on turning ideas into products and services for sale. Ireland is determined to create even more successful synergies between academia and business in the future.

TSS: Both Ireland and Slovakia have been dubbed ‘economic tigers’ but now both countries struggle under the weight of the economic downturn. What major moves has your government taken to ease the impacts of the crisis, but also to prepare the economy for a new takeoff? Has the business and investment potential between Slovakia and Ireland been fully explored?
KC: The Irish government is taking a comprehensive approach to providing for economic renewal. To stabilise the public finances, it is implementing a series of sharp spending cuts and tax increases and has quantified the further expenditure cuts and tax hikes to be enacted in 2010 and 2011 so as to bring the general government deficit below 3 percent by the end of 2013. To restore a sound banking system, it has guaranteed the liability of seven banks, recapitalised the two largest banks and taken another into public ownership, and is establishing a mechanism to deal with impaired assets on the banks’ books. The government’s objective of regaining lost competitiveness is being assisted also by an inflation rate that is now the lowest in the eurozone and by an appreciable drop in our unit labour costs. In contrast to Slovakia, the Irish Government has not had the option of spending money on measures to ease the impact of the crisis.
Every segment of the population is having to take pain; less is being asked of those least able to bear it. With unemployment forecast to average 12.6 percent this year, getting the balance right between restoring order to the public finances and protecting our fragile economy so that the gains made in good times are not dissipated is crucial. Providing labour market support and stimulating economic and market confidence are aspects of the government’s overall approach to positioning the economy for future recovery which will demand increased attention in the period ahead. May I say, finally, that while 2009 is proving to be an extremely challenging year for my country also, the key factors that facilitated our enviable economic success have not gone away; they will be preserved. Having done it before, we have a track record of adjusting and displaying flexibility. Asset prices, as well as wage and price levels, are already adjusting rapidly to our new circumstances.

Your separate interview with the Irish Chamber of Commerce and with a number of Irish companies based here illustrates the growth in trade and investment between Ireland and Slovakia since 2004. As the level remains modest, it is imperative that the potential continues to be explored. Since the start of the economic downturn, Irish companies and individual businessmen, with the support of Enterprise Ireland, the Chamber of Commerce and the Embassy, have paid increased attention to Central Europe and especially to the region’s only eurozone member, Slovakia, in their search for opportunities to sustain and develop their businesses. We all hope that the hard slog in dispiriting times will lay the groundwork for a new growth phase in bilateral economic relations before too long, to the benefit of both countries.

TSS: How large is the Irish community in Slovakia? Do you feel that Irish and Slovaks do know enough about each other?
KC: The Irish community in Slovakia, some 100 people to our knowledge, is made up of business people, university students, members of religious orders and individuals who have found their way to this country for a variety of other reasons. It is far from being a cohesive group with a sense of shared identity but, like Irish communities everywhere, would gather with alacrity when the right event – cultural, business or diplomatic – offered itself. Helping to generate activities around which to project a dynamic image of Ireland in Slovakia will be an important dimension of my work here. I hope to draw on the reserves of goodwill towards Ireland which are present in the minds of the Slovak people.

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