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Former Irish PM calls protectionism a mistake

By Mo Jingxi | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2023-09-28 00:37

Bertie Ahern, second-longest serving Taoiseach, speaks during an interview on the first day of a three-day international conference at Queen's University Belfast to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Monday, April 17, 2023. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and past leaders of the U.K. and Ireland are gathering in Belfast on Monday, 25 years after their charm, clout and determination helped Northern Ireland strike a historic peace accord. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena) AP

Ties: Growing trade 'win-win situation'

Former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern said it took several decades for Ireland to realize that protectionism was a fundamental mistake, and countries today should not repeat the old path.

Ahern, who served as prime minister of Ireland from 1997 to 2008, made the remark in a recent interview with China Daily.

Noting that a stable and healthy relationship between the European Union and China is in the interests of all, he cautioned that the idea of going away from multilateralism by imposing trade restrictions is wrong.

"Back in the 1930s and 1940s, leaders in Ireland used to believe that protecting the products with tariffs was good for the people. And it was only when we did away with the tariffs and the restrictions and opened up trade (that) we developed more," he said.

Now Ireland has become one of the most business-friendly locations in the world.

Known by some as the Silicon Valley of Europe, Ireland is the headquarters of many global information and communication technology companies.

In recent years, China and Ireland have seen their two-way trade continue to grow, with the volume reaching $23.8 billion last year, representing year-on-year growth of 3.8 percent.

The results were not achieved by protectionism and restrictions, but by allowing trade and protecting intellectual property rights, Ahern said, noting that when trade figures are growing, it's a win-win situation for companies, consumers and investors.

"That's good for the world. But things slow up when politics get in the way," he said, adding that some countries can always find one reason or another to work against unrestricted trade.

In the latest case, despite the strong economic interdependence that China and Europe have forged over the past two decades, the European Commission recently announced an anti-subsidy probe of Chinese electric vehicle makers, a move that China believes arose from protectionism.

Once the investigation is launched, Brussels, the seat of the European Union, would have to decide whether to impose provisional tariffs within nine months.

"In my view, all of that is counterproductive. It doesn't work because all these things work against business in the normal way," Ahern said.

He also said it would be particularly bad for small European countries such as Ireland, because they cannot offset the tariffs on products with subsidies, as big countries such as France or Germany can do.

But Ahern said he believed that the Chinese government and the EU are working hard to make progress while acknowledging their differences.

On Monday, Vice-Premier He Lifeng co-chaired the 10th China-EU High-level Economic and Trade Dialogue with European Commission Executive Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis in Beijing. It was the first time that the dialogue was convened since the onset of COVID-19.

According to a news release after the dialogue, the two sides reached a host of win-win results after candid and pragmatic talks on topics including macroeconomics, trade and investment, industrial supply chains and financial cooperation.

"I think the best way of resolving issues is to sit down, navigate these issues, discuss them and see where they can get compromise and where they differ," Ahern said.

He added that he noticed when he came to China in 1998 as the first Irish prime minister to visit the country that there weren't many European politicians coming to China at that time. "Now there are more and more prime ministers and senior officials coming," he said, adding that this helps them to become familiar with how things work in China.

As a frequent visitor to China, Ahern said he has witnessed the advancement of globalization and multilateralism in the nation over the past decade.

"The EU and China must work together on climate change, biodiversity, health issues, debt relief, humanitarian assistance and so many other global issues," he said.

Ahern also said he is optimistic about the future of China-EU relations.

Statistics show that China and the EU were each other's second-largest trading partner in 2022, and that the volume of bilateral trade reached a record-high $847.3 billion last year, despite the slow global economic recovery.

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