H.E. Orla O’Hanrahan, Ambassador of the Republic of Ireland to Greece, Serbia and Albania

We meet challenges by finding new business opportunities

In an op ed H.E. Orla O Hanrahan, ambassador of Ireland discuss how the country is preparing for Brexit, speaks about the Irish approach to assuring efficiency and competitiveness of the national economy and lays out the possibilities for cooperation between Ireland and Serbia in finance, enterprise and telecommunication technology, construction service, and agriculture technology.

Orla O’Hanrahan, Ambassador of the Republic of Ireland to Greece, Serbia and Albania, We Plan Far Ahead

I am very glad to contribute to CorD Magazine’s latest online edition and to communicate with your readership at this time. Having presented Credentials to the President of Serbia in Belgrade earlier this year, I have been keen to learn more about developments in Serbia, including the business activity which is taking place. We are keen to build our business relationships in Serbia.

While my role is currently held on a non-Resident basis, I am glad to say that our Embassy’s Deputy Head of Mission, Marianne Bolger, has visited several times while we are also fortunate to be represented by our experienced Honorary Consul, Ann Pesic.

As many of your readers will know, Ireland has seen a number of positive developments since emerging from our economic crisis some years ago. Our economic indicators are strong and our Government, led by our Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar, has just presented its Budget for 2019 while our Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney, is leading our Global Ireland initiative, aiming to double Ireland’s impact internationally by 2025, including by expanding our diplomatic presence around the world.

Ireland has an open, export-driven economy: we face global challenges and others closer to home in Europe, but are also determined to seize the opportunities presented by global trade.

We are keen therefore to identify opportunities for new business partnerships between Serbia and Ireland and to support those that are in place. More broadly, we want to diversify our markets at this challenging time, in the European Union and in the wider European family. Ireland is a strongly committed Member of the EU for the past 45 years and has seen many benefits from that membership. We are also active participants in the EU dialogue and very committed to the European values as articulated by Monnet and Schumann at the time of the new European Community’s formation.

Membership of the European Union has transformed our links with other European countries; most prominently, our shared membership of the EU has been very important to the Northern Ireland peace process and to North-South co-operation, and has helped change the context of the Irish-British relationship. Continued vigilance with respect to the Good Friday Agreement, signed 20 years ago this year, is a key priority, as we seek to maintain the peace and progress which has resulted from that Agreement which was also lodged as an International Agreement at the United Nations. Ireland has also been a proud and committed Member of the UN since 1955 and we are currently seeking support for our campaign for election to the UN Security Council in 2020.

Membership of the EU is and will remain fundamental to our interests, to our security and prosperity, and to the wellbeing of the Irish people. Reflecting a continuing broad national consensus, the Government is committed to safeguarding and promoting Ireland’s place at the heart of Europe, as an active and constructive EU Member State. The Government is working to meet the challenges presented by Brexit, including preparing businesses to manage the consequences of Brexit.

The Government’s main priorities for Brexit are: Protecting the Northern Ireland Peace Process; Minimising impact on trade and the economy; Maintaining the Common Travel Area and Influencing the future of the European Union.

I would like to underline Ireland’s continued strong support for Serbia’s path to EU membership and to congratulate you on all the important progress achieved so far. I encourage you to maintain momentum in progressing the necessary reforms on the path to EU membership. Ireland’s support was one of the key messages delivered by Ireland’s Minister for European Affairs, Helen McEntee, when she visited Belgrade earlier this year.

In particular, our membership of the EU’s Single Market has transformed our economy into one of the world’s most open, with a diverse range of trading partners. It has helped make us an attractive investment destination, while EU funding has been effectively applied to create a modern infrastructure and a very strong educational system across the country.

In particular, our economy has benefited immensely from the creation of the internal market; from the EU’s strength as a global trading bloc; from the Structural Funds and from the Common Agricultural Policy.

The Irish economy is performing strongly. The increase in economic activity is broadly based, reflecting robust economic fundamentals, and the strength of the recovery is perhaps most clearly evident in the labour market. Unemployment has fallen from a high of 16 % to 5.1% percent and almost 360,000 new jobs were created since 2012. Forecast GDP growth for 2018 is 5.6%, driven by record exports and underpinned by solid domestic demand.

I know that in 2018, Serbia’s economic growth is forecast to accelerate to its highest level in a decade. According to the European Commission, both domestic demand and exports are robust, supported by continuous foreign direct investment inflows. I also noticed the praise Serbia received from the International Monetary Fund earlier this year when your country exited an ambitious program of fiscal adjustment, financial sector strengthening, and broad-based economic reforms. In parallel with Ireland, Serbian fiscal account boasted a surplus in 2017, banks are stable, unemployment is at an historic low and economic confidence has much improved with inflows of foreign and domestic investments.

Looking at these very positive developments, we are keenly aware that we cannot become complacent. We are operating in an uncertain global environment and we also face challenges as the pace of technology impacts on jobs, business models and economic sectors.

The Irish Government, together with key economic agencies – Enterprise Ireland, the Industrial Development Authority, Tourism Ireland and Bord Bia (the Food Board) – is planning ahead to ensure that our economic policy is robust enough to weather these challenges to protect Ireland’s economy in the future. That is why all policy reforms are developed through across-Government commitment and engagement with the business and stakeholder. It is about building resilience in our economy and taking steps to prepare for the challenges that we face.

Enterprise Ireland, for example, has just completed “International Markets Week” in Dublin involving a record 650 Irish exporters, firmly focussed on our trade strategy and goals in a post Brexit environment. Our Foreign Minister has also led a number of initiatives around Ireland for business and civic dialogue on this significant challenge.

One of those policies is “Enterprise 2025 Renewed” which is focusing on building resilience in Ireland’s enterprise base by driving productivity growth and encouraging firms to invest in talent, skills, research and innovation. This reinforces the core premise of Ireland’s enterprise model – to deliver higher standards of living for all based on export-led growth and higher productivity. Supports for the development of Irish owned enterprises, including finding options and support for market diversification efforts are an important part of that strategy. Linked to this is our ambition to build an environment of innovation.

This strategy will also further develop Ireland’s international relationships and strengthen economic diplomacy to raise visibility, protect Ireland’s reputation and provide opportunities for other enterprises. In particular, it commits to strengthening existing relationships and forging partnerships in the European Union and beyond, including with Serbia. Developing high-level political and economic links with high growth and emerging markets and securing enhanced market access will create opportunities for Irish owned enterprises.

The network of Irish Embassies and offices of Irish state agencies abroad is critical to the delivery of a number of actions in the strategy including raising Ireland’s visibility, supporting Irish business to grow overseas and using networks of influence to facilitate relationships between Irish companies and useful contacts in the market and supporting the work of the state enterprise agencies.

All economic strategies mentioned above include a Brexit dimension. In addition, the Government has a number of long-term strategic plans in place to prepare our economy, including the ‘National Development Plan’ comprising an investment plan of €116 billion over the coming decade. In addition, ‘Project Ireland 2040’ is an ambitious guide to strategic planning and capital investment.

Extensive analysis is being undertaken by Government across all issues and key sectors that may be impacted by the consequences of Brexit. This work is helping to shape the Government’s approach to the EU-UK negotiations, as well as their wider response to the challenges posed by Brexit.

Other strategies that have been developed include ‘Ireland Connected’, published in March 2017, which sets out a vision to create a strong, open economy and make Ireland an attractive location to live and to do business. This strategy sets the following specific targets to strengthen exports and increase levels of Foreign Direct Investment: Increase indigenous exports to reach €26 billion by 2020; Generate 30,000 additional jobs in the tourism sector by 2020 and €5 billion in overseas tourism revenue by 2025; Secure 900 new foreign direct investments in a four year period to 2019 and Increase international student numbers by over 25 percent.

We implement these strategies throughout all our key economic sectors in an effort to diversify and plan for the future. These sectors include agri-food, ICT and tourism which I know are also key sectors in Serbia. In the ICT sector, Ireland is the second largest exporter of computer and IT services in the world. With a highly creative and talented workforce, an open economy and a competitive corporate tax environment, Ireland has successfully attracted eight of the top ten global information technology companies to establish a significant presence. The sector’s traditional players with long established operations in Ireland such as Intel, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Microsoft and Apple have been joined by the newer vanguard of the internet and social media revolution, including Google, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter. All of this investment has established Ireland as the internet capital of Europe. Our worldwide experience for creativity and communication is also attracting games companies such as Big Fish, EA, Demonware, Pocap, Zynga, Riot Games, Jolt and Serbia’s Nordeus all with a presence in Ireland.

Regarding Irish-Serbian trade links, we see many possibilities for expanding these opportunities between our two countries. According to the Irish Central Statistics Office, Ireland’s trade with Serbia increased by 5% last year and reached €68.5 million. There is plenty of scope for further growth of these business relationships, particularly in the following sectors: Finance; Enterprise and Telecommunication Technology; Construction Services; and Agriculture Technology.

Currently, Irish companies are partnering with Serbian IT businesses or in some cases setting up branches in Serbia. Companies such as Aspire Technology and Everseen are just some of the examples of recent investment or expanded operations in Serbia. I expect to see more of this investment in the future given the wealth of a talented workforce in your country. I also expect to see more partnerships with Serbia emerging in some of our home-grown Irish companies which cover industries like mobile payments technology, game design and cloud computing solutions, embedded technologies and data security.

Partnering with Serbian experts in these industries who have young graduates with good language skills, excellence in mathematics and science and with dynamic home-grown technological industries provide very positive advantages for both countries. These opportunities were highlighted when Enterprise Ireland, the Irish Government’s trade and innovation agency, presented at the launch of a ‘Digital Serbia’ campaign in May 2017 and we continue to support links between Irish and Serbian technology. In other sectors, Irish companies are looking at Serbia and some of them are already teaming with Serbian businesses to source products and services and gain competitive advantage. This all builds the foundations for what I hope are mutually fruitful collaborations in the future.

There are several sectors with particularly strong potential for partnering between Serbian and Irish businesses. Agriculture technology, for example, plays an important part in the economy. Ireland has rich, fertile soil, and a mild climate conducive for farming – Irish people have taken advantage of that fact for generations. However, to remain competitive in the world markets and withstand real threats from climate change, rising energy costs and food security, a highly professional group of companies has grown in Ireland. They supply anything from genetics services and animal sensors to durable farm machinery, fertilizers and effective veterinary products.

Serbia is gaining reputation as an increasingly popular Business Process Outsourcing and Shared Services (BPO/SSC) location. When it comes to delivering on building projects for major multinational clients in the BPO and data centre sectors, Irish construction services and engineering companies have a proven track record of delivering on large-scale, complex projects on time, on budget and to the highest of international standards. This is particularly true in relation to high-tech builds of data centres where there is ever-increasing pressure to complete projects in shorter and shorter timeframes. Irish project engineering companies have won an international reputation for their technical skills and performance in cost engineering and the execution of such data centre projects.

Meanwhile, Ireland’s medical technologies sector has become recognised as innovative, integrated and globalised. With a uniquely collaborative ecosystem that spans global multinationals, start-ups, university researchers and government-supported R&D centres, Irish exporters deliver an unparalleled innovation advantage to their customers. Continually looking to the future, a new generation of medical device, diagnostic and digital health companies are pioneering design-led biomedical thinking to meet their customers’ evolving needs. Underpinning the medical technology industry, an established Irish supply chain is well capable of servicing requirements of both domestic and international companies in Serbia and wider region.

I would like to acknowledge also the positive contribution of Ireland’s Diaspora to Ireland’s economic performance and to enhancing ties in the creative industries. I would like to take the opportunity to promote the excellent Belgrade-Irish Festival which takes place every March in your capital. The many enjoyable events that are held throughout the Festival each year, including film, drama, visual arts, history and music, showcase the diversity of modern cultural activity and I hope that you might attend in 2019. I believe strongly that these other forms of engagement in artistic life are not only enriching in themselves, but also serve to strengthen the wider relationship, especially in Serbia where there is such an exciting cultural agenda and deep tradition.

Another recommendation to come from the Global Irish Economic Forum was an initiative called ‘The Gathering’ which was a year-long celebration of Ireland and its rich heritage. It was a successful opportunity to join a countrywide, citizen-led initiative to reach out to Ireland’s global diaspora and their connections and to bring them to Ireland. The concept involved a yearlong invitation from the people of Ireland to its diaspora to visit home and with the improvement in our employment opportunities, many young Irish citizens have returned home from abroad.

Amongst our increasingly diverse population, is of course the Serbian community in Ireland which contributes not only to economic life but to our cultural engagement, as well of course as to a competitive spirit in a number of sports, such as soccer!

I hope that the above provides some insight into Ireland’s current economic position and how our strategies and policies have been taken forward, resulting in a renewed confidence whatever the challenges ahead.

I hope that you have an opportunity to visit Ireland in the future and I hope also to meet some of you in Serbia over the coming months. Our Embassy and state partners stand ready to guide and assist you as we work to increase our business links and future in Europe together.