Cost-effective Ireland poised to make hay

Cantillon: Europe faces ‘sinister’ crisis of competiveness, says Smurfit Kappa chief

Smurfit Kappa group chief executive Gary McGann: “Europe is facing a major economic crisis because it is fundamentally uncompetitive and becoming more so by the day.” Photograph: Collins

Smurfit Kappa group chief executive Gary McGann: “Europe is facing a major economic crisis because it is fundamentally uncompetitive and becoming more so by the day.” Photograph: Collins

Sat, Apr 12, 2014, 01:00

Aside from the property bubble, what did for Ireland’s economy in the years to the crash was the fundamental loss of cost competitiveness of Irish businesses when benchmarked against their continental peers.

Economist Ronan Lyons outlines on his blog how, relative to other European countries, Ireland’s price competitiveness worsened by 12 percentage points between 1999 and 2003 and a further four percentage points in the following years up until the 2008 crash.

Have the tables now turned?

Gary McGann, the chief executive of the Smurfit Kappa group (SKG) and former director of Anglo Irish Bank, gave an interesting speech this week to an audience of UK and Irish business leaders in which he focused on Europe’s current travails on competitiveness. It is, he said, a “great opportunity” for Ireland. McGann said Europe is faced with a “sinister challenge”: “Europe is facing a major economic crisis because it is fundamentally uncompetitive and becoming more so by the day.”

He cited as evidence the number of European businesses “moving their centre of gravity elsewhere”. Capital-intensive businesses, presumably such as SKG, now prefer to develop discretionary projects outside of the Continent “because energy is three or four times more expensive [in Europe]”.

McGann criticised the “inability to effect changes in work practices in a speedy fashion”, as well as “the principle in Europe that wealth must be shared before it is earned”. He also lamented a “distaste for the concept of meritocracy . . . excessive cost of government and poorly thought-out regulation”. All of this, said McGann, was acting as a “dead hand” on European business progress.

He appeared to suggest that Ireland and Britain, now hardened veterans of austerity and cost control, could capitalise on the competitiveness problems mounting up on the Continent to steal in ahead of other European countries to snaffle an even bigger slice of trade with the US.

As the old saying goes, one should never waste a good crisis.

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