Currently holding the presidency of the European Union for half a year, Ireland has gone from the eurozone’s biggest worry to something of a poster child for austerity-led recovery from the continent’s sovereign debt crisis.
The three subjects the country wants to emphasize while holding the presidency reflect a careful nurturing of the tender shoots of recovery, Mulhall told The Local in an exclusive interview at the Irish Embassy in central Berlin.
“Every country has the chance during the presidency to put its own stamp on the EU. We are trying to draw on our experience during the last four or five years of serious economic crisis and the gradual recovery. We believe that’s relevant to the rest of the Union. That is why we are trying to emphasize stability, jobs and growth during our presidency.”
Yet concern remains that much of the optimism has been fuelled by disembodied numbers on paper and that little is being felt by the 4.6 million people in the island nation. Mulhall agreed that many Irish had yet to see concrete improvements in their lives.
Feeling effects of austerity
“People in Ireland are feeling the effects of five years of austerity, cutbacks and reduced expenditure as well as increases in taxation,” he said. “But these things have to be seen as part of an overall complex picture. My view is that it should be a priority for Ireland to continue to improve our position, strengthen our competitive economy so that we can win back credibility in the international marketplace. We want to be able to borrow what we need without support from the EU and IMF.”
He said the Irish economy had grown by 1.4 percent in 2011, by close to 1 percent last year, and that growth of 1.5 percent was expected for this year. But the task of repairing the economy was made significantly more difficult by the fact that Ireland’s export-based economy’s main partners were also struggling, he said.
“The environment in which we are making this recovery is so uncertain and weak. We have an export-oriented economy whose main markets, the UK and Europe, are in difficulty,” he said.
“We have to continue to work hard to create jobs in Ireland that will give our young people the opportunity to remain at home and make their plans in Ireland – or for those who have left, to return. We need these people to fuel our development in the years and decades ahead.”
International firms seed Irish start-ups
The presence of large corporations such as Google, Intel and Hewlett Packard in Ireland, attracted by low corporate tax rates contributed to the recovery, and was important not only in creating jobs, but in seeding new companies, said Mulhall.
“Ireland missed out on the industrial revolution, so we do not have major companies like Siemens or Bayer as a base for our development. But the big companies which have come to Ireland have not only employed many Irish people who are attractive as they are well-educated and hard-working – they have also led to new Irish firms being set up by those people.”
Although migration of young people out of Ireland to escape poverty and seek their fortune abroad had been a part of Irish history for the last 150 years, it was still sad to see it happening again, he said.
“The renewal of emigration from Ireland is a very sad story and that is why I think we have to redouble our efforts to ensure that these people who have left in the last few years have the same opportunity as in the 1990s to come back.”
Tradition of leaving and coming back
“I believe that most Irish people probably would want to come back even if they are in countries where standards of living are high. There is a strong pull from home and family. I expect that people will come home. There is a tradition of leaving and coming back.”
About 15,000 of those who have left have found their way to Germany, he said, with a long-established community in Munich and a seemingly younger one in Berlin.
Many have at least a working knowledge of German, he said, and many Irish-German marriages had also helped make for well-integrated new members of German society.
“Irish expats here are not always fluent, but in general Irish people integrate well,” he said.
“The majority of people who come here are already well educated and don’t have much difficulty acquiring German language skills. It may be that some are working in environments where they can manage just with English. But I think most people are trying to improve their German.”
Important to learn German
He encouraged his countrymen to learn the language, as Germany was Ireland’s most important eurozone partner.
“Having the language is an asset in Ireland, yet the first foreign language generally learned in our schools is French, I think about three times as often as German. The amount of German being learned in Ireland is increasing though – although it is difficult for schools to change their areas of expertise.”
As one of those Irish expats, albeit in the cushioned environment of the ambassadorial job, Mulhall said he loved being in Germany for four reasons.
“I love Berlin, it is an exciting city with the feeling that it is still developing. It is not finished yet. There is lots to do, and lots to see without it being a metropolis.
“I also love the variety in Germany, which is possibly not something seen from the outside so much. There are so many strong regional identities.
“Thirdly working here is great for me – over the last four years since I got here Germany has become a more important player in the EU and the world. For a diplomat it is fascinating to be here and to see this process.
“Germany is more important for Ireland too – it is our fourth biggest export partner, our second most important export market for services, and the second biggest inward investor. We expect some 500,000 Germans to visit Ireland this year.
“Lastly, I like Germans. People are straightforward here. As a foreigner you can access Germany pretty easily. If you ask a question you will get a clear answer. That’s important if you want to get to know a country. That last thing you want is to be caught up in a cocoon that you cannot break out of,” he said.
“Germans may be reserved but when you talk to them you will get a fairly clear picture of things which is very refreshing.”