Address by Minister Cowen to the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland National Conference - 1
It is a great pleasure for me to be a guest at the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland National Conference and I am grateful for the warm welcome to Galway which I received from the Lord Mayor, Val Hanley. I also want to thank the President of the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland, Mark Staunton for his kind invitation to attend your conference dinner and address you here this evening. I am glad to extend a welcome to Arnaldo Abruzzini, Secretary-General of Eurochambres, the European Association of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, and to David Frost, the Director-General of the British Chambers of Commerce. Your presence here is much appreciated.
This year marks the 80th anniversary since the founding of the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland, and it is flourishing. But this state of affairs is hardly surprising given the sheer breadth of the Chambers' influence and presence in every part of the country.
I have long been an admirer of the services that the Chambers make available to their members in the local, national and global context. In more recent times too, I also came to value your organisation's strong campaigning dimension. I recall in particular, and with deep appreciation, the significant effort that so many of you put in during the second Nice referendum campaign. Members throughout the country - representing businesses large and small - invested considerable time and resources to help ensure that the referendum was carried. Indeed, some of the most convincing and, where necessary, robust interventions in support of Nice were made by people who are here tonight.
The successful outcome of the second referendum has paved the way for the largest expansion in the history of the European Union. As a result, Europe's most profound historical transformation since the fall of the Berlin Wall is happening before our eyes. While enlargement might not have the emotional and visual impact of that unforgettable day in November 1989, it will have an enormously positive and far-reaching social and economic impact on the people of Central and Eastern Europe. At last the artificial division of Europe is coming to an end. And it will be Ireland's distinct honour that this extraordinary development, which we enthusiastically support, will be brought to fruition during our Presidency of the European Union in the first have of next year.
Enlargement is important and welcome in its own right. But it is doubly attractive in that it will create exciting opportunities for the current members of the Union. Each of the previous four expansions has resulted in increased foreign direct investment across the whole Union. I have every confidence that this one will produce a similar result. With a Union of 500 million people, we will be the largest single market in the world. And as trade and investment grows to serve this single market, it is envisaged that 300,000 new jobs will be created in existing Member States and 2 million in the accession countries.
New markets will be opened, fresh commercial links will be forged and barriers to trade will be removed. In some respects, enlargement is opening up horizons on the scale we saw 30 years ago when we joined. And all we have to do is look around us here in Galway to see the reality of what EU membership has meant for Ireland - with some of the world's leading firms in the fields of Electronics, Software and International Services having chosen to locate here. This is why membership meant so much for us in 1973, and why next year's Enlargement holds out so much potential.
At the same time - and we need to be very honest about this - Ireland cannot take for granted the opportunities that lie ahead. We must position ourselves to seize them. The reality is that we are entering a period of fierce global competition. We will need, therefore, to shape an environment from which we can compete effectively - both for foreign investment, and for the goods and services we produce. Competitiveness is central to our continued economic well being, and to our capacity to maximise the potential benefit from the enlarged single market. The latest OECD Economic Survey on Ireland, which was published just last week, emphasises that our future prosperity depends on safeguarding competitiveness and, by extension, remaining attractive to foreign investors.
Although the Euro's appreciation should help to move inflation in the right direction, I accept that it has not been helpful for much of our export sector. But this is a reality over which we have limited control. There are, however, other variables over which we can exert real influence. By keeping corporation tax low, by increasing productivity, by promoting competition and by dealing with infrastructural deficiencies, we can significantly enhance national competitiveness. Crucially also, we must ensure that pay increases are linked to productivity and performance. This is where social partnership agreements can play a major role. The latest such agreement, Sustaining Progress, in which the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland had an important involvement, aims to balance the demands for pay increases with the similarly compelling need for increases in productivity.
Collective action at European level can also complement our domestic efforts to maintain and improve our competitiveness. At the Lisbon European Council in 2000, the Union set itself the objective of becoming the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010, capable of sustained economic growth with more and better jobs. Much has been achieved to date, including the progressive opening up of energy markets, creating a single sky, modernising competition policy, putting in place an integrated Europe-wide financial market and agreeing a Community patent. This is still clearly a work in progress.
The reality is that in a climate of slow global economic performance, those possessing a competitive edge will succeed best. That is why we have already indicated to our EU partners that Ireland's EU Presidency in 2004 will give priority to fostering competitiveness and eliminating barriers to the development of a supportive environment for business. We will champion the interests of small and medium-sized enterprises, highlight the need to complete the internal market for services, and move ahead with regulatory reform. We are conscious that successful regulatory reform, by easing the burden on business, will support stronger economic growth and deliver benefits in terms of job creation. We are equally seized of the need to tackle restrictive practices which choke the capacity of businesses to grow. Expanding employment opportunities, including working on innovative solutions to the problems of structural unemployment, will be central to our Presidency. We welcome, in this regard, the work being undertaken at present by the European Employment Taskforce, under the chairmanship of former Dutch Prime Minister, Wim Kok.