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World Economic Forum

Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 7 February 2018

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Questions (4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14)

Gerry Adams


4. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos recently. [4277/18]

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Richard Boyd Barrett


5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Davos for the World Economic Forum. [4288/18]

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Micheál Martin


6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the sessions he attended at the World Economic Forum in Davos; the meetings he attended; and the subjects that were discussed. [4323/18]

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Brendan Howlin


7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the World Economic Forum in Davos; the meetings he attended; the number of staff from his Department that attended; and the estimated cost to his Department of the visit. [4550/18]

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Micheál Martin


8. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meetings at the World Economic Forum in Davos; if Ireland's corporation tax and the reduction in the US corporation tax rate was discussed; if Ireland's reputation as a tax haven was mentioned; and the way in which he responded to these issues. [4556/18]

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Micheál Martin


9. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if banking reform was discussed at his meetings at the World Economic Forum in Davos. [4560/18]

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Paul Murphy


10. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. [4569/18]

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Joan Burton


11. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the World Economic Forum in Davos. [5292/18]

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Joan Burton


12. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos with a person (details supplied). [5293/18]

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Joan Burton


13. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos with a person (details supplied). [5294/18]

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Stephen Donnelly


14. Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly asked the Taoiseach if Ireland’s exposure to Brexit was discussed at the World Economic Forum in Davos. [5423/18]

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Oral answers (20 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 14, inclusive, together.

Following an invitation from Professor Klaus Schwab, I attended the 2018 annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos from 24 to 26 January. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Pascal Donohoe, also attended as an invitee. This was my first time to participate in the annual meeting, the theme of which was creating a shared future in a fractured world.

I undertook a number of engagements and meetings during the visit to promote Ireland's international interests, in particular as a location for business and investment and to highlight Ireland’s place as an island at the centre of the world and at the heart of Europe. Throughout my visit, during my scheduled meetings with companies, my participation in formal World Economic Forum events and in a series of informal contacts, I discussed a range of important policy challenges for Ireland, the EU and the world. These included climate change, sustainable development, immigration, defence, security, international trade and taxation, as well as Ireland's perspective on Brexit and the future of Europe.

I attended an event hosted by Bill and Melinda Gates, which focused on the sustainable development goals, including issues such as gender equality, health promotion and poverty eradication. The guest of honour at that event was Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel prize winner and advocate for the education of women and girls.

I had a number of pre-scheduled bilateral meetings with senior executives from multinational high-tech, pharmaceutical and financial services firms which between them employ over 12,000 people in Ireland, ranging from Facebook to Coca-Cola. Each of these companies was interested in Ireland’s perspective on Brexit and other global developments such as trade and international taxation, as well, of course, as providing me with an update on their operations in Ireland.

On Thursday evening, I spoke at an IDA Ireland dinner for 60 senior executives of existing and prospective foreign direct investment client companies, which between them employ over 36,000 people in Ireland and 2.3 million globally. At the bilateral meetings and during the IDA dinner, I emphasised the strengths that underline Ireland's success in attracting foreign direct investment, which are talent, track record and our stable, transparent and competitive corporation tax regime.

I also participated in two of the World Economic Forum’s formal events, including a panel discussion entitled "New Momentum for Europe" alongside the Prime Minister of Portugal, Mr. Costa, and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mr. Rutte, as well as a lunch event with political, academic and business leaders. Both events provided opportunities to outline Ireland's perspectives.

The annual meeting is also an opportunity to engage on an impromptu basis with many people in leadership positions in politics, international development, civic society and business. Among others, I met informally with the Slovenian Prime Minister, Miro Cerar, President Macri of Argentina, Michel Barnier, former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, Kofi Annan and Denis O’Brien. I also attended US President Trump's speech to close the meeting.

Davos provides an exceptional opportunity to engage with the international press and highlight Ireland’s strengths as a location for inward investment.

I undertook several media engagements with Irish and international media, including Bloomberg, Reuters, BBC and CNN. As is the case with all travel, my officials ensured that the costs were minimised and the best value for money pursued. The final cost for the visit and the delegation of six is not yet available, but full details will be published on my Department's website in early course. I am satisfied that my attendance at Davos was worthwhile, given the opportunities it offers to engage with so many decision makers, as well as supporting Industrial Development Agency, IDA, Ireland in its role in promoting the country as a location for investment.

Speaking at the European Parliament several weeks ago, the Taoiseach warned the British Government that there must be no backsliding on the December agreement. During statements on the EU in the Dáil, he said it was important to remain vigilant to ensure that the commitments entered into in December's agreement would be delivered in full. Then, at the World Economic Forum at Davos, he reminded the British that commitments entered into in December on avoiding a hard border would be adhered to. The Taoiseach would appear to have significant concerns about the preparedness of the British to deliver on their commitments. That is a concern I am sure many of us share, especially given the litany of broken promises around the Good Friday Agreement. Has the Taoiseach sought additional assurances or guarantees from the British Government that this will not happen? Much of our economic future could be influenced by the decisions of the British and the EU and their approach to Brexit.

While at Davos, the Taoiseach also called for a Norway-plus deal for Britain. It is clear from Michel Barnier's remarks in London that the EU still does not know what sort of relationship the British want with the EU after Brexit. Has either the Taoiseach or the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, spoken to either the British or to our EU partners on this proposed Norway-plus model? Can the Taoiseach share with us any responses that have been received? Is this approach supported by Michel Barnier? Has the Taoiseach acknowledged that his proposal would have to be a specific arrangement, as there is no precedent for this kind of relationship? The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between the EU and Canada reduces tariffs but does little in the way of services. The EU-Norway arrangement allows Norway virtually full access to the Single Market, but Norway still has to abide by all EU rules and pay into the EU budget which, to my knowledge, is not an approach that the British would accept.

If it is possible for the EU to construct special arrangements with Canada, Norway, Greenland and other countries, why can the Government not push for the North to have special designated status within the EU as a way of avoiding a hard economic border? As the Taoiseach already knows, the commitments contained in the joint report on the Irish Border and agreed by the EU and UK in December are due to be transposed into binding legal documents in the coming weeks. In this way, these commitments will be embedded in the withdrawal treatment covering Britain's departure from the EU next March. What steps is the Government taking to ensure that there is absolutely no ambiguity regarding the North in this codified text?

The annual gathering at Davos, as a gathering of the world's global corporate and billionaire elite, always brings into fairly sharp focus the ever-growing, shocking and obscene levels of wealth inequality in our world. This year, Oxfam reported that the richest 1% have the same amount of wealth as 82% of the remainder of the world's population. It also pointed out there are now 2,000 billionaires and that their wealth increased by €762 billion last year. I repeat, that figure is their increase in wealth in one year. It is enough to wipe out global poverty seven times over. That is shocking and obscene enough. However, what is really shocking is that even this global elite hauled our Government and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, over the coals and slated them during a debate on corporate taxation and the role that tax evasion by the world's biggest multinationals plays in creating a race to the bottom which leads directly to that obscene and growing level of inequality. We were slated. Our reputation is in shreds. Joseph Stiglitz, CEOs and politicians from this global elite pointed the finger, rightly in my opinion, at Ireland, for its disgraceful role in spearheading the race to the bottom in respect of corporate tax. The position is such that 13 of the top 100 companies in Ireland pay an effective tax rate of less than 1%. In the case of Apple, the figure is 0.2%. We do nothing about this. Rather, we go to bat with Apple to defend its right not to pay €13 billion in tax and then claim that we are trying to address this problem as part of a global solution.

Even the global elite does not believe us. Its members are slating us and our reputation is in shreds. Are they not right that Ireland has played a really rotten role in leading a global race to the bottom in respect of corporate tax and contributing to the shocking and obscene levels of wealth inequality in the world?

I am just reflecting on the common cause that Deputy Boyd Barrett has found with the global elite. It is taking me some time to digest that. He normally rails against the personages who-----

Not against Professor Stiglitz.

-----were at Davos.

The Davos event is one which Taoisigh have been attending for 20 years. Over this time, the hype has escalated but the actual output is becoming less and less clear. It has become more and more of a repetitive ritual. It is necessary, but I am not sure that it changes a whole lot when it comes to global policy or the evolution thereof. Every year, the Taoiseach of the day meets a particular list of investors and does interviews with a particular list of news channels. It is important that, as a country, we do this. We have to be there. However, it is certainly reasonable to question the degree of attention paid to it and evaluate the outcomes more objectively than we have been doing to date.

The issue of taxation, including proposals for digital taxation, arose on a number of occasions. Has the Government conducted or requested a specific impact study on such an initiative? I have asked about this before and I would be grateful for an answer. I know that the Taoiseach attended a session with Bill and Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation. At the end of his reply, the Taoiseach indicated that he met a number of individuals. Did he meet those whose names he read out collectively or separately? What was the subject matter of the conversations where Ireland is concerned and, indeed, generally?

Finally, I make the point that the Ireland is a small country. Its industrial policy from the late 1960s, based on open access to free markets, has fundamentally altered the trajectory of our economic development since that decade, when Taoiseach Seán Lemass began the opening up of our country. It seems that those who are advocating that we unilaterally change course have an obligation to come up with an alternative model, one that would have similar outcomes for the historic development of industry, both multinational and indigenous. We can certainly do better on the indigenous side. However, there is no doubt that no matter how many people find them disturbing, the policies - tax policies et alia - have had an impact on this country, to the benefit of many working people here. Many of the other countries who are complaining are themselves quite adept at organising situations whereby they gain advantage, in their national interest and in the interests of their citizens.

I believe in a global approach to this. The global corporations have to pay more, and I would have much preferred it if the global elite did not turn on Ireland, but rather the corporations turned on themselves, and asked themselves some basic questions about what they can contribute globally. That is not restricted to their charitable foundations, and some of them have very good charitable foundations. Rather, this concerns the ways in which governments and the global corporations interact, in a globalised world which is different to that of previous decades.

It seems Deputy Micheál Martin wants to be the one to be attending Davos. I am not sure that there was some golden age when Davos was anything other than what it is.

I was there before.

I think the Deputy might like to be back there again. I am sure he will go if he gets a chance to be Taoiseach.

It is not as luxurious as the Deputy might think.

It will be exactly the same.

Coming from Ireland, one has to deal with the snow.

We get some of that in Tallaght. Not like in Davos though. The event consists of politicians prostrating themselves before the economic elite, doing business deals and demonstrating that they are safe pairs of hands for capitalism.

In that respect, I am interested in what the Taoiseach discussed at the impromptu meeting he had with our 1%, Mr. Denis O'Brien, who was not there for no reason. He was there for economic reasons and to maximise profit through political influence.

I return to the Oxfam report raised by Deputy Boyd Barrett. Has the Taoiseach read the report or the summary of it? How does he feel about a world that is so racked with inequality? In the last year, the top 1% got 82% of all the wealth generated and the bottom 50%, or 3.7 billion people, got nothing. There are over 2,000 billionaires, with two being created each day. Oxfam calculates that two thirds of those billionaires' wealth is the product of inheritance, monopoly and cronyism. How does the Taoiseach feel about the role Ireland plays in deepening inequality? That was exposed by what Joseph Stiglitz said at Davos on the role Ireland plays in a race to the bottom in terms of corporate tax, both in the headline rate and the effective rate. In 1980, total corporation profits were approximately €2 billion. They are approximately €7.5 billion now but the total amount of tax paid by corporations has only slightly increased. The responsibility for that lies with countries like Ireland which engage in tax haven behaviour and a race to the bottom in a programme of so-called tax competition, where the only winners are the big multinationals and the losers are public services in this country and in developing countries.

With regard to the Taoiseach's visit, or should I say pilgrimage, to Davos, can he give a picture of his discussions on taxation and international tax regimes, particularly as regards the changes in US corporation tax, the fact that there is a major effort by the administration in the United States to repatriate profits to the US and the implications of that, if any? The Taoiseach reported that he met the heads of significant US corporations, many of which are major employers in Ireland employing hundreds of thousands of people. What is his impression of the new US corporation tax system and its likely impact on Ireland over the next few years?

Second, I note that the Taoiseach had a meeting with Sheryl Sandberg, the boss of Facebook. One of the great changes in the democratic world over recent years has been the Trump-speak on social media coming from both the right and the ultra left, with personal trolling of many people involved in democratic politics. I do not believe Facebook is doing enough of what it has the capacity to do to try to reduce this destructive speech about democracies, both in Ireland and across the world. Extremes are being given free platforms by the social media companies. Can the Taoiseach tell us about his discussions with Ms Sandberg? We see the explanations in terms of hiring more people to monitor the hate speech, but there is a great deal of such speech, including in Ireland. It is extremely destructive, particularly for younger people, but also for the people who are doing this for the extremes of the right and the left. Did the Taoiseach manage to discuss that?

The great German writer, Thomas Mann, used to write about people going to the Alps in the 19th century to find cures for tuberculosis, TB. Now it appears there are pilgrimages by leaders of democratic countries to seek some type of fortune from the über leaders of capitalism in its most modern forms, who have made extraordinary fortunes. Did the Taoiseach discuss with them the possibility of introducing a global financial transactions tax - it would have to be done on a global basis - so some of their profits can be redistributed to people across the world, particularly in less well off countries?

Almost exactly ten years ago in Davos, the start of the 2008 financial crisis was already rolling out. Has anything changed in the last ten years? Has the business model or economic model changed in any way? Have we learned anything from that crash? There appears to be a stock market bubble again and there is a property bubble in this country. Economic growth across the world is booming and the planet is cooking. Inequality was mentioned earlier. Has anything changed? Does the Taoiseach think we should have a slightly different message about what economics could and should be or what business model we wish to follow? Have we changed? Has anything been learned from the crash?

The position on Brexit is that we are part of the European Union and we are one of the 27 in terms of the negotiations. We are not negotiating bilaterally. The European Union and the United Kingdom are currently beginning negotiations on the withdrawal agreement and the transition period. Our objective is to ensure that the commitments and guarantees given in December are fully reflected in the withdrawal agreement, which is legally binding. In addition, we support a transition period of up to two years. That will give Irish people and Irish businesses a chance to adapt to any permanent changes that might take place as a result of Brexit. I did not call for a Norway plus plus model. I might have been reported in that way, but that is not what I said. I said that the UK-EU relationship is likely to be something different from the existing relationships. Norway is a small country and is not comparable with the United Kingdom. Canada might be a large country but it is on a different continent. Any new relationship between the UK and the EU is likely to be a bespoke one. It might have some similarities with other arrangements, but will not be identical to any of them. The UK Government's sub-committee on Brexit is meeting today and tomorrow to decide what future relationship it wants the UK to have with the European Union. I look forward to any clarity the UK Government can give us on what relationship it would like to have in the future.

Davos is a very interesting gathering of political and business leaders. In addition, and I did not expect this, many of the people there were from the NGO sector and were activists. The first event I attended was a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation event at which the main speaker was Malala Yousafzai. I had a chance to speak with her. She is a major advocate for education for women and girls. Just last week the Government decided to double its commitment to the Global Partnership for Education, investing more in the education of girls and women around the world. We know this is a very effective anti-poverty and anti-radicalism measure. It was a pleasure to hear from her and to meet her. One of the main speakers at the lunch the next day was the executive director of Greenpeace. The One Foundation was represented there as well. I did not know that Greenpeace, the One Foundation and Nobel laureates formed part of the global elite, but if they do I am glad they were present and had an opportunity to engage with the business and political leaders who were also there.

Deputy Martin is correct that it probably is over-hyped. It is definitely not a luxurious gathering. However, it is very useful, if only because it allows one, over the course of two days, to have an enormous number of formal and informal bilateral meetings and meetings in groups with Heads of State and Government and with business leaders as well as interactions with the media. If one were to try to organise those in the normal course of one's diary it would take many months to do so. The fact that everybody is gathered in the same location and that it works on a strict 29-minute meeting format allows one to do a huge amount that would otherwise take a very long time. For that reason alone, it is useful to attend it.

An interesting point made during some of my engagements, in particular with NGOs, is the extent to which we are making enormous progress in meeting sustainable development goals and that the doom and gloom about the world is not borne out when one examines the facts and the progress we are making towards those goals. For example, the proportion of the world population who suffer from extreme poverty is rapidly falling. Some interesting information was produced on that issue. Measures being taken such as action against disease, whether HIV, vaccine programmes or the elimination of polio and smallpox, life expectancy and access to literacy and education are going in the right direction globally. It is a hard truth to hear for the hard left but it is interesting that groups such as international NGOs or the UN are pointing out the enormous progress being made in those areas and how much more we could do with additional effort. That gives much hope for the future, shows that the world is going in the right direction and that the naysayers do not speak for those who work on the front line tackling inequality, disease, poverty in the third world and helping those who are trying to get access to education.

The Taoiseach should read the report. That is what was said before 2008.

At the meeting with Sheryl Sandberg, we principally discussed the operations of Facebook in Ireland. It is expanding and will take on a few hundred extra people, in particular in East Wall. We discussed how more could be done to protect social media users, particularly children. There was a discussion with the US companies present on their perspectives on the tax changes that have been made in the United States. They had mixed views in that regard. Most welcomed the reduction in corporation tax and that they can repatriate profits to the US but, as some pointed out, some companies are worse off as a result of the changes because of the elimination of many exemptions and reliefs, which I did not expect to hear. They do not think it will have any impact on investment in Ireland but it may make future investment more attractive in the US than is currently the case. I was not present for discussion of a financial transaction tax.

The Department of Finance is working on an impact study on digital taxation but it is difficult to carry out an impact study when there is no clear or definite proposal as to how a digital tax may work. Neither the OECD nor the European Union have produced such a proposal. To carry out an impact analysis on a proposal that does not yet exist is quite difficult. A feature of a digital tax that does not make sense is that the tax be applied at the point of sale. We do not do so for other industries. To take cars as an example, huge numbers of cars are made by Volkswagen in Germany and Renault in France and the profits those companies make are taxed in France and Germany, not the countries in which the cars are sold. I do not see why one would tax profits at point of sale in the digital industry but in other industries one would do the reverse.

Would it be possible to move on to the next question?