Costing Brexit

In my last blog, I recommended some links that explored the very difficult negotiation course ahead for the UK.  It may involve six processes by one count.  It will certainly mean that the key ones are sequential.  The talks ahead are so mid-numbingly complex and interlocked, that the two year time frame looks distinctly optimistic.  Bearing in mind how long trade negotiations usually take, one has to wonder how realistic.

The two year time limit was not really based on a consideration of what was to be negotiated.  Even at this stage we’re not sure what precisely is to be negotiated.  How and what is the UK going to leave?  What will be the nature of its new relationship with the EU as a third party country?

What we do know is that the UK departure/reentry will be complex, whether you’re looking at a hard or soft Brexit.  It’s one big known unknown. There is a second very obvious known unknown: whatever shape and scale the negotiations take, they will have an immediate and ongoing impact economically.

There are two reasons for this.  As a member of the WTO trading with the EU (to take one model), British business will face tariffs, on average 4.8% but considerably higher depending on the sector.

Ben Chou, the UK Independent’s Economics Editor filed this report on the likely costs involved.  Based on the average tariff, the cost is reckoned at £4.5bn but as Chou notes this could be much higher.  You can argue that this is offset by the decline in Sterling but it is  not as simple as that: weaker Sterling means that inputs from abroad are more expensive and eventually those higher costs feed into wages and unit costs.  But tariffs have a second economic impact that is much harder to quantify.

As one businessman said to me recently the scale of the tariff is not the problem; its the form filling and port clearances.  And tariffs are not the only new bureaucracy; there are likely to be rules of origins which will complicate an exporter’s life.  To take another example, the EU refunds VAT to businesses within the single market and its all done electronically.  Third party countries have to file by paper, a lot of it according to another businessman whose company here in Ireland processes VAT claims for other businesses across the EU. The UK is looking to a future where it is third party country with the EU and its 53 bilateral partners, a total of 80 countries in all.

Which is why Heathrow’s chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, told the Financial Times (26/9) that leaving the Customs Union would mean “adding massive overhead for very little gain”.  The article in which he is quoted notes that the UK has a very lean operation with only 5,000 customs officers, compared to Germany’s 35,218.  That could easily double if new procedures are imposed on the £150bn worth of goods exported by the UK to the EU.  And putting new systems in place could take years.

Businesses are highly dynamic and thrive on certainty, including tried and tested bureaucratic routes that green light their goods and services to market.  It is generally only our Embassies outside the EU that are called on to help extricate an Irish exporter’s shipment out of some bureaucratic snafu at the port of entry. Talk to any exporter and they’ll tell you that one of the great obstacles to entering a new market is the regulatory one.

And the UK has to factor in too that the EU has some 53 free trade agreements with other countries with whom it will have reframe its trading engagement once out of the EU.

If British business faces new requirements, it will take time to smooth out the wrinkles and adjust.  That again underlines the importance of a transition agreement between the UK and EU.  For Foreign Direct Investment companies, their patience may be tested.  As Japan robustly pointed out recently, its companies had invested in the UK precisely because it was a member of the single market whose raison d’etre is getting rid of barriers to trade.

While globally trade liberalisation is under pressure, the EU is forging ahead in creating free trade with partner countries. New free trade agreements are near completion, such as with the US (TTIP) and Canada (CETA); and more planned, such as one with India. Even when trade agreements are not finalised, a whole raft of trade obstacles are cleared out of the way that free up increased bilateral business.

Looking internally, the EU the integration of the single market continues with the ground breaking single digital market and a capital markets union.  By not being part of these negotiations, the UK is incurring another cost, somewhat ineffable but very real.

Costing Brexit is in its infancy but costs both quantifiable and intangible there will be.



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The Brexit Grand National

Brexit: the UK is going to leave the EU.  But how?  When exactly? Charles Grant at the Centre for European Reform has looked into the future to see the negotiating track that lies ahead for the UK as it departs the European Union. It is a really interesting piece of work.  You can read it here and I’d highly recommend it. I found it as a link in Martin Wolf’s column this week in the Financial Times (the FT is now essential reading for Brexit watchers). Having read Grant’s article, Wolf thinks that a hard Brexit is the most likely option.

The key point in Grant’s analysis is that the UK has to sort out its relations with the EU, WTO and bilaterally sequentially. That stands to reason but its implications for the Brexit negotiation process and British trade are profound.

Taking the first part, look at the negotiation process in reverse because the ostensible economic goal of Brexit is to free the UK to do trade deals around the world. The UK cannot finalise any bilateral trade agreements unless it has an established position as a stand-alone member of the WTO, as opposed to being a bloc member via the EU. Moreover, it has to divide the world into those countries that have an existing FTA with the EU (53 countries and counting) and those who do not.

The UK cannot establish its standing within the WTO until it has first established its trading relationship with the EU whether that is via the European Free Trade Agreement (EFTA) or the European Economic Area (EEA) or a bespoke UK-EU free trade agreement.

And the UK cannot do that until it has agreed the terms of its withdrawal from the EU. (To get a sense of the possible complexities, the Swiss are a member of the EFTA but not the EEA, having opted instead to negotiate some 120 free trade agreements with the EU. Yet because of the Swiss referendum restricting immigration, their relationship with the EU has to be revised).

Getting back to the starting line, the UK cannot legally do any deals with third parties as long as it is a member of the EU. The sequential process of negotiation facing the UK is not however some mere legalistic imposition. Any country that Britain wants to do a trade deal with will need to know where Britain stands vis-à-vis the EU and WTO otherwise it cannot assess what’s on the table and what are the implications for its trade with other partners.

Brexit then is the Grand National of negotiations with each multilateral forum containing a new set of fences to jump. The tricky bit is that the UK doesn’t know the height of the fences. That will be decided by the members of each fora. Any single member can decide the height that the UK has to clear to get to the next stage. Or can red flag the process at any stage by disrupting the consensus. That applies to the EFTA (4 members) and the EEA (30) as well as the EU (27 other members) and WTO (163).

The UK has only two years to run the course once the Article 50 gun is fired. Taking into account the need to get approval of the EU Council and Parliament, you can shave a month or so that. European elections will interrupt the process as mandates are refreshed and perhaps electoral instructions generated that have a direct bearing on the negotiations.

If there is no agreed extension, then the UK will find itself out of the EU, on its own, riding across unknown country with weights in its saddle courtesy of the WTO default single status membership.

As Wolf argues for various compelling reasons, the balance of probability is a hard Brexit. I know what a hard Brexit is when I don’t think about it but I don’t know what it means when I do. I suspect is more complex that its name suggests, with at least some transition if only to avoid excessive damage to the British economy.  Indeed both Wolf and Grant point to the critical importance of the transition agreement which is needed whether the British Government’s goal is a hard or soft exit from the EU.

And I think that, faced with the longevity and complexity of a soft Brexit negotiation, the impact and unknowns of a hard Brexit, and the post-Article 50 two year timeline, the transition agreement is the where the focus of attention should and will be.

Yet like the terms of a hard Brexit, the nature of such a transitional agreement needs scrutiny. Even now analyses of either are scanty. Given the importance of the British market to its trading partners, there is certainly an incentive to do deals and reach understandings for a transition period. The EU raises much of its capital needs in London, for example. More relabeling and less substantive demands on the UK’s part will facilitate a transition agreement.

Yet there will be a limit to this facilitation. Trade talks are followed with intense scrutiny business and unions who have a very keen interest in the prospective outcomes. Each member state will be subject to their own domestic political pressures, not all of which will necessarily support an interim arrangement. The appetite for transitional arrangements will be constrained the more the UK is looking to shed regulations to improve its competitive advantage. Trade difficulties for the UK will mean opportunities for its competitors within the EU.

No one should underestimate the UK. They have a formidable system, the reflexes of a big power, a large economy, international reach, a veto on the UN Security Council, skilled and canny officials, and a deep reservoir of experience. They have been a source of great firepower within the EU on free trade issues, on justice and home affairs, on security, international relations and overseas development assistance. That list could go on.

Within the EU, we in Ireland have relied on British support and sheer capacity on issues where our perspectives converged. We’ll miss them in Brussels, no doubt about it. Yet formidable though they are, they have set themselves an unenviable task of great, even confounding complexity in leaving the comfort of the EU Jockey Club, mounting up and heading off on the Brexit Grand National.





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Small Advanced Economies Initiative, Dublin Meeting

Ireland hosted the Small Advanced Economies Initiative (SAEI) last week in Dublin Castle. Never heard of it, you say. Not surprising as it’s a low profile gathering of officials and policy experts from seven countries that fit the description on the tin. It’s a forum to share ideas on three policy areas, namely foreign affairs and trade, economics and competitiveness, and science and innovation.

The SAEI was inspired and convened by New Zealand and also includes Singapore, Israel, Switzerland, Denmark and Finland. We like to keep it small so we can exchange views informally. It is very lightly managed without a permanent secretariat but the New Zealanders do a great job jollying everything and everyone into place.

In Ireland’s case, the host was a troika of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, my Department and Science Foundation Ireland. We generated a collegial sense of working together on this which really helped generate the creative ideas needed for an engaging agenda not to mention the logistical demands of organising an international visit of some forty-seven delegates.

I am happy to say the delegates were very happy with the agenda and engaged openly and productively on its wide range of issues. We had an opening session on the relationship of small states to big neighbours (Ireland and Britain, Singapore and China) and my presentation on our relationship with Britain was helped by the venue of Dublin Castle where I could point to King John’s tower, the lynchpin of conquest since it was commissioned in 1204 (don’t worry, I got to the Celtic Tiger and Brexit within 5 minutes). Our second plenary was on “The Great Unravelling? Rising civil society discontent with globalisation: Challenge and Opportunity for small states.” We had a very useful presentation and discussion with the OECD on business success in the digital age and what the data was showing. It was clear from this new engagement that the SAEI and OECD could find some useful work to do together.

In the three strands of expert discussions we exchanged views and proposals on small state diplomacy, economic complexity trends, productivity and competitiveness, regional fragmentation, research commercialisation, ODA and climate change.

Aside from our discussions, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan (@CharlieFlanagan), hosted a welcome reception at Iveagh House; Peter Sutherland (Attorney General, DG at the GATT and WTO, EU Commissioner for Competition) was an authoritative and compelling keynote speaker at a dinner at Farmleigh; and the delegates visited Trinity for a briefing on Ireland’s innovation system by the heads of six research centre under the expert direction of SFI’s director Mark Ferguson. Before leaving Trinity, the delegates were shown the Book of Kells, that awesome totem of Ireland’s learned antiquity.

Looking to modern frontiers, FabLabs Ireland hosted a demonstration and discussion on their ground breaking and inspiring work (check out short Ireland video here and international video here), showing the vast potential of new technology to address social and economic issues (website here) by making it available to local communities. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Mary Mitchell O’Connor (@mitchelloconnor) addressed the concluding reception hosted at the Trinity Science Gallery where the delegates were treated to a survey of Irish innovation and business systems by Martin Curley (Professor of Technology and Business Innovation at Maynooth). Not bad for three days in Dublin!

The global context is now particularly challenging with stagnant trade, sluggish economic growth, regional fragmentation, public anxieties about a host of issues, the distortions of negative interest rates, doubts about globalisation and pressures against trade liberalisation, all against the frightening backdrop of climate change whose affects are here now, not in the future.

On our own small states are particularly vulnerable to the bullying effects of events, big institutions and powerful governments. The issues we discussed all related to how small states can cope in a world dominated by the agendas and interests of big powers. How can we advance the interests of our people and leverage our influence for positive outcomes? How can we shape and indeed share our policies to that effect? We and our friends in the SAEI have quite a bit of work to pick up after the Dublin meeting. That’s a very healthy indication of a productive engagement.


DG Trade Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

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Remembering New York, 911

Hard to believe it has been fifteen years since my family and I woke up on a beautiful New York morning and faced a day that would reshape our world.
After I dropped our young kids to the UN school, I recall glancing down Park Avenue and seeing a billowing grey cloud of dust. As Press Officer, I had the only TV in the Consulate so when I arrived the locally based colleagues were trying the three flickers to turn it on: something terrible had happened, the twin towers were mentioned.
We stood around the TV images of smoke billowing from the Twin Towers, all of us wrapt and confused. Minutes passed as we tried to make sense of what we were seeing. Then it happened, as if we were watching some event in nature like a chuck of rock sloughing off a cliff or a massive lump of ice shearing from a glacier: one of the towers sank in a haze of thick dust, implacable and indifferent to the people it had been sheltering.
Mobile phone networks were down but we got a call through to Dublin on a land line. We didn’t hang up for days and that phone on the table was our communications lifeline to HQ.
The Department cranked into high gear as the Secretary General, Dermot Gallagher created a crisis centre in the grand ballroom in Iveagh House and assembled a consular team of hand picked officers to fly to New York as soon as possible to strengthen the Consulate.
My wife called. Should she get the kids out of the school? I said no, it was miles from the Twin Towers. Rumours were rife: more planes were in the air about to strike DC: one of the staff wanted to leave because she had heard that two planes were hijacked and flying from Heathrow heading straight for NY like air-borne torpedoes. News reports came in about a plane hitting the Pentagon. I called Mary and told her to get the kids out of school.
What followed was a blur of activity, piecing together what was happening, reporting to HQ, dealing with the press from Ireland. We needed to figure out how many Irish were killed, injured or needing our help. The Irish media asked how many ‘Irish were among the dead?’
But in NY how do you define Irish? Irish born? Child of Irish born? Passport holder? And what of Irish Americans going back two, three generations?
Stairwell: Irish American firefighters going up meet Irish American financial traders going down. Story of the Irish. They died together when the tower collapsed.
As 9/11 unfolded, one of the biggest helps to the Consulate was the NY Police Department. Every other cop had an Irish name: the Irish pulling together.
Mary went to the UN School to get the kids. When she went in, one of the towers was still standing. She told the kids that bad men had flown planes into the towers. They would see one of the towers burning but they should not worry, she counselled. When she left the school she walked to a corner where people were crying. They pointed; the second tower was gone.
During the crisis and its long aftermath, it felt surreal. Clichéd but true, at times it felt like a movie, vivid, heightened reality but so abnormal to qualify as not quite real. Memories of that time have the same character, hived off from normal recall, a feedback loop that refreshes itself, never fading.
The Consulate was manned 24/7: a great team running on adrenaline. Old friends arrived as part of the consular group from Dublin. We had worked together on the Northern Ireland peace process and 911 was redolent of times like the Enniskilling and Omagh bombings, dislocating, violent events.
Our home was on East 37th St. My wife checked in when she could: kids home safe but confused by the news. People were streaming by on foot. Traffic stopped, evening fell, the air started to fill with a strange potent smell, burnt, unpleasant.
We worked long hours at the Consulate. The team from Dublin travelled around in NYPD cars following up on leads from home, checking to see who was still alive, who missing.
NY, city of spontaneous shrines in the days and weeks that followed. We pilgrimaged as a family to the nearby Armory Building, festooned with notes, photos of those hopefully just missing but most likely dead, lost somewhere in the gigantic heap of rubble that was ground zero.
9/11. We all changed that day.

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City Cycling and the Zen of Obeying the Lights

For those of us who cycle to work, this is an interesting read (linked below), particularly on the health benefits versus pollution equation. Thanks to the great bike-to-work scheme, I invested in a good road bike and started cycling to work some months back. Here is my story of a reformed bicycle outlaw.

As a student, I used to cycle everyday from Clontarf to UCD and back again, a daily 30km. My journey was cut in half when I started working in town and then it was halted abruptly by going on my first posting to Washington. In the intervening quarter of a century, I did virtually no cycling except for a brief period at home when I crashed heavily on the Rathfarnham road and was saved from serious head injury by my helmet.

So when recently I hopped on the saddle again it was back to the future. The bike was a bit of a hound at first, speeding off on the downhill from our housing estate as I wobbled astride this narrow-wheeled machine. But the old cyclist in me came back and I soon found my form. That included the hunter-gatherer approach to traffic lights which I approached with stealth and speed, calculating how to break red lights with a minimum effect on my velocity. It was a thrill and I justified it on the basis that it was war on the roads between bikes and cars.

Then something happened on the Rathgar road which has a lovely long slope into the city centre and a wide cycle track. It allows for a very fast clip along its expansive Edwardian elegance. Unfortunately, precisely halfway along it there is a traffic light. Its a straight-forward intersection with a less travelled road and breaking the light is a simple calculation of cars and pedestrians with the helpful pedestrian light at the intersecting road. One morning I cut through with ease but as I passed the paused cars I heard a distinct shout of an indistinct word from one of the cars, clearly aimed at me. A bit like the laugh that caused an existential crisis in Camus’s ‘The Fall’, it made me think.

In fact, it changed my cycling habits radically. I tried it first as an experiment. I would stop at red lights, plain and simple. It was an odd feeling to suddenly become a law-abiding road user and not an ecstatic outlaw yahooing my way along. And then I had a moment. I was stopped at the lights that mark the start of the Rathgar Road, in Rathgar village in fact. The sky was a clear deep morning blue and the tall mature trees enveloping the church there were iridescently green and lovely as the church spire vaulted into the heavens. Heightened awareness from the cardio of cycling added to the lustre of the scene. When the light turned green, I moved on. Since then, the zen of actually obeying the rules of the road means my mind is free to stop calculating about survival on the margins and enjoy the glory of my surroundings as I pedal along.

Does this add appreciably to the journey time? Barely, I would hazard and it allows my middle-aged cardio system a rest, particularly appreciated on the largely uphill journey home. As I stand still at an empty cross roads patiently waiting for the light to change, I speculate on the car behind me wondering when I don’t move on and get out of his/her way like some cyclists would do without a thought. I let cyclists who break lights go on their merry way with nary a thought about pursuit. Maybe I and the many fellow cyclists who wait on lights instil a little more respect in drivers about cyclists. And in such small things maybe its a kind of low level peace building between the machine that is helping to kill our planet and the one that can help us save it.

How do the benefits of exercise compare to the harm from pollution?

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After the Brexit Vote, the Export Trade Council Meets

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan TD, convened a meeting of the Export Trade Council (ETC) on 20 July.  The Council comprises Ministers, their senior officials and heads of the State Agencies involved in Irish trade and investment, and representatives of the private sector.

As you’ll know from my blog of the previous meeting, the Council is a unique sounding board.  It was at that meeting that a clear warning was sounded about the pre-vote mood in England, that momentum was with the Leave side and that the Irish doing business there were braced for the worst.  Now that its happened, one thing is for sure; we can’t rely on status quo bias.  Things are going to change for Irish business.

The meeting of the Council was mature, thoughtful and focused on the challenges we face as Ireland and the EU adjust to the changes needed to protect Irish trading interests.  The more you look at those changes, the deeper and more complex the process ahead looks.

After Minister’s opening remarks, the Council heard an update on the current situation on the EU front.  The floor was open to the private sector members.  In response, the public officials briefed on changes afoot within our system to respond effectively to Brexit and the State Agencies in particular offered their assessment of the impact on their programmes and clients.  While there are some opportunities, every sector in our economy has to adapt in some way to proximate challenges like the decline in sterling and longer term ones that are shrouded in uncertainty, such as market access, UK household expenditure and the UK’s growth projections.

Overall, there was a clear sense that Brexit’s effects on Ireland are likely to be manifold, that we face complex and sensitive decisions to balance our trade and investment interests, our offensive and defensive trade needs, and our relationships with key international partners in the new world we face.  It was also recognised that the UK will remain a formidable player as it seeks to protect its interests in the unfolding negotiation process.  It was acknowledged that the relevance of previous ETC discussions on building economic resilience through market diversification was underscored dramatically by Brexit.

Minister Flanagan briefed on a number of significant developments regarding the work of the Council.  The first was that the ETC preparatory group of public officials will now meet as the Trade Coordination Group on a monthly basis.  This will enhance information sharing in a very dynamic environment and improve whole of government coordination in the trade space.  It will also assist in developing the Council’s work and input.  This group will also spearhead the formulation of the new trade strategy to replace the Trade, Tourism and Investment Strategy, entitled “Trading Better”.  The next meeting of the Council, Minister Flanagan advised, will focus on Asia.

I would recommend you take a look at the Minister’s press release, copied below, that issued after the meeting of the Council.  It gives a good sense of the discussion and outcomes.


PRESS RELEASE: Minister Flanagan convenes Export Trade Council to discuss next steps following UK Referendum

Market Diversification Prioritised

Work to be accelerated on new trade, tourism & investment policy, “Trading Better”, 2017-2021

Next ETC will focus on Asia-Pacific region

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, today (Wednesday) convened a special meeting of the Export Trade Council, focussed on the steps needed to support and enhance Irish business overseas in the wake of the British referendum decision to leave the European Union.

Following the meeting which brought together the heads of six government departments, five state agencies as well as ten representatives of private sector exporters, Minister Flanagan stated:

“Today the ETC strongly affirmed that Ireland’s future is at the heart of the European Union. That is the key message that we must send out to all our business partners and prospective investors.

“We had a very productive discussion which focused on how Ireland responds to the current challenges and opportunities. Ireland has a number of key markets where we have a strong, established presence, such as the UK, the US, France and Germany – these and other EU markets present opportunities to deepen our market penetration.

“In previous discussions at the Council, we identified market diversification as key mitigating factors in regard to risks to our economy. That indeed was reaffirmed at our discussions today, with particular reference to Brexit. In line with the intensification of this government policy, I have recently created new commercial attaché posts in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and Romania, to enhance market access for Irish companies as part of my Department’s new economic diplomacy strategy.

“In line with the programme for government, we are also diversifying and developing our market presence in emerging markets in Latin America and Asia. Africa presents new opportunities as was well illustrated by the very successful meeting of the Africa Ireland Business Forum recently.

“At the weekend I was in Ulaanbaatar at the Asia-Europe Summit (ASEM) Summit. I also visited Beijing. Following my consultations with a number of Asian partner countries, today I proposed that the next meeting of the Export Trade Council will focus on the Asia-Pacific region. I plan to update members on the Government’s plan for a cross-sectoral strategy for the region in line with our Programme for Government commitments.

“Today, members were briefed on the formulation of a new successor policy to the Trade, Tourism and Investment Strategy will be accelerated. “Trading Better” will set out a coherent medium term plan for 2017-2021 to enhance and improve how we support Irish exports and investment. We agreed to accelerate that work.

“I have tasked the Trade officials in my Department to establish a Trade Coordination Group involving all the Departments and Agencies represented on the ETC. The Group will meet monthly and its primary task will be to ensure an enhanced level of coordination and collaboration across all of the Departments and Agencies engaged in supporting Irish business overseas, under the aegis of the Council. Along with my Department’s mission network of Embassies, Consulates and Honorary Consuls, the economic State Agencies are in the front lines in winning business and investment for Ireland overseas.

The Minister concluded:

“Today’s discussions and the contributions of the members of the Council were substantive. They identified the challenges facing Irish business in the UK in the wake of the referendum.

“We agreed that the economic relationship within the island of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain will remain vitally important to us and our future economic prosperity.

“Clearly, the new trading arrangements that eventually emerge from the implementation of the British decision to leave the European Union will affect us. But they will not fundamentally alter the importance of the UK market to us, nor the importance of the Irish market to the UK.

“Our discussions also showed a renewed determination to come together as we work collectively to secure and better Ireland’s prospects for prosperity.

“Ireland has shown great discipline and agility in response to the 2008 crisis and our recovery stands us in good stead. We must now show a similar determination and agility again. The Export Trade Council will play an important role in how we coordinate our collective efforts to ensure that Ireland as a trading nation emerges stronger from the challenges before us. Under my chairmanship, I am determined to ensure that outcome.”

Press Office
20 July 2016

Note for Editors:

The Export Trade Council (ETC), which is chaired by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan TD. The ETC has met regularly since 2011, including for special consultations in advance of the UK referendum. It brings together senior Ministers with an economic focus, the heads of the State agencies involved in promoting trade, tourism, investment and education abroad with the support of the Embassy network, and members drawn from the private sector.

The current members of the Council include: Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan TD, Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton, TD, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed, TD, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, TD, Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross TD.

The heads of the State agencies that work closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Embassy network in promoting trade, tourism, investment and education are also represented on the Council: Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, Bord Bia, Tourism Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland.

The private sector is also represented on the Council by IBEC and the Irish Exporters Association, as well as by a number of business people with a track record in the relevant sectors.

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Into the Mouth of the Dragon, Istanbul Airport 29 June

We knew about the horrors of the attack on Ataturk Airport thanks to the novelty, for me at any rate, of having wifi on the airplane. We expected to be diverted but apart from some hushed comments of the cabin crew, nothing was officially said by the captain as we made our approach to the airport. We landed on the skirt, behind a long line of aircraft flanked by buses. It had all the feel of an emergency plan well executed and the buses deposited us and droves of other arrivals at the terminal.  This had been the sixth terrorist attack in Turkey so far this year.

Inside the terminal, there were queues and crowds, groups sitting on the floor and the exhausted sleeping on the ground as travellers pushed passed them. Once in the departures area, the mood was unusual; subdued, not the usual bustle of one of the world’s busiest transit points (sixty one million travellers last year). On reflection, it had the sombre quiet of a church, the airport hallowed now, and probably only temporarily, by the knowledge that many had just died there. The footage of a gunman wounded and immolating himself graphically showed one death. One had to think of all the innocents killed, some forty one, each loss leaving a terrible rent in a family, a loving relationship turned into an intangible frozen memory.

Travellers are terribly vulnerable as they move from, with and to loved ones.  Weather, disorganisation, delays, mechanical failures, and strikes are now joined with sickening regularity by terrorist attacks.  (In this instance, just why the arrivals area of Ataturk Airport may have been attacked is examined in this New Yorker article here.)  Was it a sign of a new normal that, remarkably, our connecting flight to Dublin left only four hours behind schedule after such a devastating attack?

International terrorism is one of many dragons that are sowing global and domestic havoc, adding to that sense that we are in a great unravelling of social and political order.  Some say that it is the break-up of the post-WWII order.  Some argue that it is more accurately the break-up of the post-WWI order as Middle East borders dissolve and the order imposed by oligarchic Arab nationalism fails.  Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole has eloquently argued that Brexit is the result of the stirring of the dragon of English nationalism in one of the greatest miscalculations in British history. Others believe that we are witnessing the effects of the pervasive but all but invisible ideological triumph of neoliberalism.  Globalisation and its disruptions are cited as another culprit.

In medieval maps, “there be dragons” was often printed below a rendering of the mythical beast to indicate an unknown area into which the traveller should not venture.  We don’t have that luxury today.   The dragons are coming to us and we must understand why if we are to push them back and restore some order on our affairs.

In September, the Departments of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, and Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Science Foundation Ireland will co-host the annual meeting of the Small Advanced Economies Initiative (which we share with Denmark, Finland, Israel, Singapore, Switzerland and New Zealand). We discussed the agenda last April and decided that a plenary item was needed to capture the sense of things falling apart.

“The Great Unravelling” at our SAEI meeting promises to be a compelling discussion from the perspective of senior officials involved in foreign affairs, trade and innovation. We are unlikely to come up with answers or even more modestly how small countries can navigate this unknown and unstable terrain.  But this is a vital conversation if we are to identify the causes of, and the solutions for, current discontents.



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