The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has over the last year or so begun a cycle of regional meetings with our Embassies and these discussions are an important and valued innovation. Regional units at HQ are a crucial link between our officers in the field and the Department. They provide a focal point for the full range of Embassy activities within their region, including diplomatic, trade, cultural, educational and networking activities.
Since returning to HQ, I have attended regional meetings in Addis Abba and Shanghai, convened and chaired by Secretary General Niall Burgess. Last week I attended a regional meeting of our CEE HoM in Warsaw. The acronym refers to our Heads of Mission in Central and Eastern Europe and the meeting involved colleagues from Dublin and representatives of the Agencies, namely in this case Enterprise Ireland, Tourism Ireland and Bord Bía. It was opportunity to review our operations in the region. Of particularly interest to me was our trading relationships, though of course the politics and diplomacy of the region are vital interests for Ireland where reporting and contact work by our Embassies are an invaluable input to the evolution of our positions and policies.
Some general impressions first off. There is a subtle but very definite demarcation running north south through Germany to Italy. As one moves east, perspectives and interests shift. Partly to do with history, partly to do with after-shocks of the breakup of the USSR, and partly to do with current events in what Russia describes as the “near abroad”, security issues feature understandably and necessarily. NATO and the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy loom large on government agendas. Ireland as an island nation, and Western Europe generally, assume greater assurance that security threats are a thing of the past. It is useful to recall that for all the criticism of the European project, the peace and prosperity we enjoy is hard to conceive without the EU.
All this is brought home in Warsaw. The city was almost completely levelled by WWII as armies criss-crossed Poland. Its reconstruction is actually a marvel, combining new and reconstructed pre-war buildings strung along elegant boulevards. The National Museum, one of many in the city, is a modernist building of strong, square symmetries dating from 1938 (it survived the war but its collection was looted by the Nazis). By contrast, the national art collection within captures Poland’s grandeur, its rich, complex intellectual heritage and accomplishments, its sense being a European power. Objectively this is certainly true within the European Union: with a population of over 38 million and a trillion euro economy, Poland is one of the “big six” in the EU. The Polish economy avoided the deleterious effects of the financial crash and has, indeed, enjoyed GDP growth of 24% between 2008 and 2014. This is projected to continue into the medium term, albeit at lower rates.
A fascinating point about Poland was made by our Ambassador there, Gerard Keown. Because of the strong emigration to Ireland and the welcome here for Poles, not only is Ireland’s reputation high amongst relatives back in Poland but our immigrant Poles have been helping Irish companies leapfrog into the Polish market. Two-way trade between us was worth €2.2bn in 2014, and is growing by 15-20% annually. Irish exports increased 33% January-August this year, while Polish exports to Ireland grew by 24%. And connectivity is excellent: 55 flights a week to 12 Polish cities and 750,000 air journeys in 2014. A very welcome development was Bord Bía’s announcement at the regional meeting that they were placing an officer full time at the Embassy Warsaw.
The Iron Curtain has probably impacted on our knowledge of Central and Eastern Europe. It not only stopped travel there but communist rule created a deep divergence of experience. By the same token, knowledge of Ireland in Central and Eastern Europe is best where there has been emigration here. For one has to be cautious in assuming how much the outside world knows about Ireland and in particular how well we are branded as an innovative economy, at the cutting of sustainable agri-business and with a deep reservoir of skill and creativity. We, as Ireland Inc., have to work hard for attention outside the West and countries with strong Irish Diasporas. Ireland’s visibility is low overall globally and just because landmarks are turned green for St Patrick’s Day does not mean the local general public knows why. This matters generally but visibility and a clear brand identity is critical in supporting the work of the Agencies who promote the various specific aspects of our trade, tourism and investment.
Our Embassy in the Czech Republic is headed up by Ambassador Charles Sheehan. The Czech economy is now the fastest-growing in the EU, apart from Ireland, and it has the lowest unemployment rate, apart from Germany. Charles reports that our economic relations with the Czech Republic have developed very positively in recent years with total bilateral trade in goods and services of over €1.3bn in 2013. While the multinational sector dominated most export categories, there is strong interest in the Czech Republic from indigenous Irish companies. The Embassy supports the EI Office in Prague and EI is working closely with over 40 Irish companies which have offices in the Czech Republic, operating in real estate, recruitment, plastics, automotive industry supplies, electronics and leisure. A trade mission to Poland and the Czech Republic was led last May by Minister of State Ged Nash.
Ambassador Anne-Marie Callan in Slovakia is a one-person mission and more than most she appreciated the opportunity of the regional meeting to liaise with colleagues and get a sense from HQ about plans for the future. She is working closely with EI and is focused on construction, start-ups, education links, high tech and RnD (where SFI is helpful). With an EU Presidency on its plate next year, Slovakia is particularly aware of the Brexit debate.
Pat Kelly is our Ambassador in Budapest. He reports that overall trade is relatively healthy at approximately €1.1 bn in trade and services. The Embassy works closely with the EI office (co-located with the Embassy) on maintaining and developing relations with Irish companies active in Hungary, and facilitating new contacts. The Irish Hungarian Business Circle is an important partner and Hungarian appreciation of Irish culture helps open doors.
Discussions between our Ambassadors in the field and the SG and colleague based at headquarters are vital conduits for the Department and for Missions to understand each other’s needs in promoting bilateral relations and trade. So it proved again in Warsaw. Aside from important housekeeping matters such as business planning, HR performance and risk management, discussions focused on how to improve Missions’ capacity to deliver on trade and related objectives such as improved visibility for Ireland in markets that are only one step away from our most important European ones, namely the UK, France, Germany, and Belgium.
A special word of thanks to Gerard Keown, our Ambassador in Warsaw and his team at the Embassy who organised an impeccably run programme and offered warm hospitality.
DG Trade Division