The colourful Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, Ireland and Europe’s largest low-cost air carrier, has a certain way with words which must be a dream for journalists looking for a soundbite on the Irish vote on the Lisbon Treaty. O’Leary cut out the niceties in using the title quote of this blog to describe the ‘No’ supporters. Often portrayed as dull and too complex to understand, the Lisbon Treaty has nonetheless created plenty of fireworks between the opposing sides – with each accusing the other of misinformation and dirty tricks.
The Irish referendum this week is seen as the key hurdle to adopting Lisbon, which will reform the current institutional set-up of the EU. With the likes of Ryanair, Intel and Microsoft lining up behind the ‘Yes’ campaign, the question I’m interested in is why so many in business, and the high tech sector in particular, are supporting the Treaty?
A survey of 300 CEOs conducted by the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) in July provides some of the answers. 98% of respondents believe that EU membership has been beneficial to Irish business and 84% believe that last year’s ‘no’ vote in Ireland’s first referendum on the Treaty damaged the country’s international reputation. It’s not just about large companies – Ireland’s Small Firms Association published a survey earlier this month in which three out of four small businesses viewed a second ‘no’ vote as bad for business.
The ‘No’ campaign have pointed out that the vote on the Treaty is not a vote on whether or not Ireland remains in the EU. Nonetheless, the reasons put forward by multinationals to vote in favour indicate that they see the vote as determining Ireland’s place in Europe. To quote Jim O’Hara, Intel’s General Manager in Ireland, “A yes vote sends out a strong signal across Europe and across the world that Ireland sees itself as a strong influential player at the heart of Europe. That’s good for business, it’s good for jobs and it’s good for prosperity.” Intel has put its money where its mouth is; reportedly spending a six figure sum on the ‘Yes’ campaign.
So why is it important for Ireland to engage in Europe? One reason that keeps cropping up is access to the EU’s 500 million or so consumers. As Paul Rellis puts it on behalf of Microsoft: “I’ll vote yes, because I believe Ireland’s the gateway to Europe for so many companies”. Half of Ireland’s exports go to the EU and access to the ‘single market’ has been key to obtaining foreign direct investment over the years. Having witnessed the process close up for a number of years, I can see what they are getting at. A stronger Europe in the face of national interests means a more harmonised and co-ordinated approach that helps glue 27 regulatory systems into one. In effect, it simplifies the ability to do business across Europe.
Perhaps one of the explanations why the tech firms have been so prominent is Europe’s recognition of innovation. As O’Hara claims: “Europe is committed to being at the forefront of the knowledge economy in the 21st Century.”
Whether or not the EU’s leaders can push forward with such ambitious goals, or will be reduced once more to a period of soul-searching, depends somewhat on Friday’s vote by a small nation on its western fringes.