Ireland aids EU challenge

29 Apr 2004

Over the centuries the map of Europe has constantly changed as figureheads ranging from Caesar to Napoleon failed to do in over 2,000 years what a handful of government leaders and eurocrats have manage to do in less than 40 years; realising that economic and humanistic ties achieve more than the sword or gunpowder.

The change from the Revenue Commissioners’ point of view came in the past couple of years,” he says. Moore highlighted the example of Ireland sharing its Intrastat system — a €1m IT management system it developed for trade statistics and vital to customs and excise as well as measuring patterns of trade — with Cyprus. “What Ireland said was, ‘We have a system, and you don’t.’ We’ll share.”

Moore said that finding the resources to free up a valuable civil servant’s time to travel to other countries for a week or six months is something that state bodies are struggling with. He says there is a need to create a separate government agency that could look at keeping recently retired civil servants upskilled and in the loop, and who would be prepared to travel overseas and work in a mentor-like role. “With the availability grants from the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, such an agency would pay for itself,” he suggests.

Co-ordinating the exchange of workers from The Revenue Commissioners to central and eastern Europe is Emily Jones, who believes that a large amount of the philosophy of technology transfer among EU member states under the Phare and Tacis programmes is also about preserving the strength of the EU in times of change. “From a revenue perspective, basically we are seeing counties that were on the outermost frontiers of Europe passing that responsibility to other countries further east. We’re looking to strengthen our borders. If we give them assistance they will be better prepared to follow the rules and manage the borders.

“It is vital to get this right, millions of euros could be lost in week one. What we are finding also is that these countries are very professional, eager to be EU citizens and anxious to shake off the stigma of being former Soviet states. What staggers me is how well educated they are; nearly every counterpart has spent two years in graduate school,” she says.

Jones acknowledges that freeing up valuable civil servants’ time to engage in technology transfer is a problem. “We have 6,500 employees, but that’s small by European standards. We can’t afford to send people for longer than a week. We have people constantly going to Malta, Estonia, Bulgaria, Russia, the Ukraine, Uzbekistan and even as far as Mongolia.

“There is no obvious material benefit to what we are doing but the best benefit is making contact with new officials, no matter what department you help. It is also great for our people because they are being sent out because they are the best in the EU for what they do. For the Irish Government we’re enhancing its image and expanding our contacts,” she adds.

Roche qualifies this: “We’ve engaged in more technology transfer than ever before and it’s about time. There’s no financial gain except it’s a good neighbourly thing to do as well as helping the EU as a whole absorb the impact of expansion. The Department of Finance and the Department of Agriculture stand out particularly for their energy.

“The fact is that we’re a small country, but we have more experience than most other states in dealing with Brussels and Strasbourg. People don’t realise that the essential ingredient in being a successful member of the EU is building alliances around projects. We are close to France in terms of Common Agriculture Policy and tax in terms of the new states. We are known for building alliances and those alliances are what make us successful in Europe.

“These countries are facing big challenges and Europe faces problems of capacity. It is no skin off our nose to help them and be as open as we can possibly be. We have allies we can count on because they can count on us. It’s been a really good experience for Ireland. We’ve always been open, but with the10 new states coming in together it prudent as well as neighbourly to engage in technology transfer,” Roche added.

Technology transfer withing the union

While across Europe parties will light up Saturday evening, the very week of the accession states coming to Dublin will be marked by something of an eWeek, a week-long, countrywide demonstration of Ireland’s technology prowess. The brainchild of collaboration between Dublin Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise Ireland (EI) and Information Society Minister Mary Hanafin, eWeek will see at least two trade missions hosted by EI including a cross-section of chambers of commerce from across Europe.

EI executive director Pat Maher is determined that the accession be an advantage for Irish companies in terms of new export opportunities. “As an export market, you can’t talk homogenously about central Europe. The Czech Republic is a strong target in terms of financial software and telecoms, while Hungary represents a strong opportunity in terms of digital media and e-learning.

“These are markets that are growing at similar rates to Ireland, and while western Europe would be a bigger market, it is fairly stagnant at the minute. Central European countries are demonstrating openness to new things, such as mobile. They look on Ireland as a role model as opposed to a predator,” Maher says.

He continues: “My advice is, don’t go willy-nilly into these markets, do the preparation. Another thing is that Ireland has to look on itself as a developed economy as opposed to a less-developed one. Therefore our approach to business has to be different. We are in the big league and need new strategies. The big point is that we’ve got to change our modus operandi. We are a high-cost economy now and we have to change model to suit that and got to be able to dance ahead. We are small, but we want to stay in the ‘premier league’.”

Strategy analyst Seamus Mulconry of Accenture liaises closely with the Irish Government in developing IT initiatives and was also involved in the creation of eWeek. He believes that there is considerable upside to the Government engaging in technology transfer. “The wealth of these markets is going to grow considerably. There is need for infrastructure investment and they look to Ireland as highly successful at integrating with Europe. Very few countries do it as well as we do. As well as using EU membership as a lever for attracting foreign direct investment, we also put in place the kind of systems that would comply with EU membership.

“It makes sense to share. At government level it will help with votes in the European Parliament in the future — informal alliances make sense. From a business perspective it makes it easier for businesses in Ireland to develop contacts in accession countries. If Irish companies can gain a foothold in central Europe, they can use that to move further east. Central Asia, for example, has one of the fastest-growing populations in the world,” Mulconry concludes.

Among the chamber of commerce delegation arriving in Ireland as part of eWeek is Bartosz Kowalsk of the Polish Chamber of Commerce for Electronics and Communications. The technology industry there, he says, is anticipating opportunities as part of an expanded Europe. “I think that software would be Poland’s strongest asset and we would like to be seen as good competitors and software producers. The environment for investment is getting better and better. We have created special zones for research and development, our workforce is relatively cheaper than most of western Europe and well qualified.

“We are aware that Ireland used its membership of the EU to its full advantage and we want to emulate that. What we have to remember is that Ireland is a smaller country than Poland; we are 10 times bigger in terms of population and market, so we anticipate different problems. However, the common view is that we would like to follow Ireland’s example in using the EU to our full benefit,” Kowalski concludes.

By John Kennedy