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