As a region with a population in excess of 340 million, the opportunity the eurozone presents to Irish business is enormous.
Many Irish firms are already capitalising on this. In 2019, the year before the pandemic began, Enterprise Ireland client companies recorded 15pc growth in eurozone exports.
Yet we are still merely scratching the surface. Despite the fact that the eurozone has five times the population of the UK, it has less than two-thirds of the exports from Irish companies.
The UK has always been, for reasons of proximity, culture and language, the first port of call for Ireland’s exporters. Its importance to Irish business has been made more challenging by Brexit but has not diminished.
However, for ambitious Irish businesses it’s not a question of either/or. The advantages the eurozone offers are too compelling to ignore, including a single market, freedom of movement of people, goods, services and money, a single currency and a lack of customs barriers.
Despite these overwhelming advantages, in working with indigenous Irish businesses, we at Enterprise Ireland too often saw a hesitancy to take that first step into wider EU markets. Whether it was language concerns or lack of awareness of the scale of the opportunity was difficult to discern.
It prompted Enterprise Ireland, in 2019, to launch Enter the Eurozone, a unique market entry programme that went on to win an award from the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD), the Oscars of the education and training world.
The five-month Enter the Eurozone programme is delivered in partnership with ESMT in Berlin, Germany’s number one business school, and IMS Marketing in Galway, an experienced provider of one-to-one business advice in international market entry planning and implementation.
In developing the programme, we recognised that while management teams are positive about training, what they really want to know is what will it mean for their business.
So, at the end of this programme, each participant comes out with a clearly defined market entry plan bespoke to their business. It contains clear, practical steps which, if taken, will see them win contracts abroad.
Enterprise Ireland’s eurozone team, based in-market, then helps them to execute that plan, backed by its network of in-market expertise.
The programme is aimed at first-time exporters and those looking to export beyond the UK for the first time. Only 50 years ago the vast bulk of Irish exports were to the UK. That reliance has been reducing steadily for years. Brexit simply accelerated the trend.
Our new trading relationship with the UK moved businesses from thinking about eurozone exports as something “I need to do sometime”, to “something I need to do now”.
Given the scale of the opportunity that awaits, that’s a positive. It’s not about being defensive, it’s about winning new business. It’s about understanding that no matter how Brexit plays out, this is the right thing to do.
Irish companies have unique products and services, especially in areas such as software.
We take for granted that our companies are exposed to US multinational companies without realising that it gives us enormous advantages in terms of experience, standards and service levels.
Irish companies are already selling to the best in the world at home. That level of expertise and experience is sought all over Europe too. Among the companies that have come through the programme are Campion Pumps in Tipperary, which now partners with an Italian firm to sell its unique pumping software in the EU. Leitrim’s Archway Products, inventor of the innovative Roadmaster multi-purpose road repair machine, is gaining traction in Germany. Shamrock Farm Enterprises, a maker of equine supplements, also in Tipperary, recently secured a distributor in France.
Indeed, of the 102 companies that have gone through Enter the Eurozone, 37 have successfully taken steps towards European markets.
It’s a remarkable result given that business-to-business sales cycles typically take 18 months and, what’s more, the bulk of participants have
come through the programme during Covid.
That’s testament to how remarkable Irish SMEs are, and how remarkable this programme is.
To find out how you could expand into the eurozone, see enterprise-ireland.com/en/export-assistance/building-export/enter-the-eurozone.html.
Paul Browne is programme manager — leadership and scaling at Enterprise Ireland.