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The future of Europe, democracy, and the role of business.

The following is the text of a speech that Gary Joyce gave at the Royal Irish Academy on March 25th, 2024 as part of a symposium on the The Future of Europe, and defending democracy.


Frances FitzGerald, MEP and Vice-Chair, EPP

Catherine Day, Former Sec Gen, European Commission

Tommie Gorman, Author and Journalist

Dan Mulhall, Former Ambassador to the US and UK

Simon Harris, TD, Leader of Fine Gael and Taoiseach designate.  



Minister Harris, Ministers, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you, Frances, for inviting me to participate in this discussion today, as we explore how to defend our democracy in a rapidly changing and uncertain world.

You have asked me to focus on the role of business, and I do so this evening as co-founder of a number of businesses and as an advisor to businesses and organisations of all sizes, across sectors.

With that perspective, I know I’m not alone in sensing that we are living at a pivotal time, when, to paraphrase Tennyson, ‘the old order is changing, giving way to the new’.

In an era rife with geopolitical uncertainties, misinformation campaigns, and pressing global challenges like climate change and immigration, the landscape we navigate is fraught with complexity.

This reality extends not only to policymakers but also to businesses and individuals alike. The traditional pathways to building a good life, once straightforward, now seem obscured by shifting societal values and economic realities. The once-reliable social contract, promising prosperity through education and hard work, now feels broken for many. A sense of inequity and injustice pervades our society, eroding the very foundations of democracy.

This is the root cause of the extremism that threatens our values.

Yet, amidst this turbulence, the role of business emerges as pivotal. The Single Market has been the cornerstone of European democracy and transformative for Ireland’s economic model, enabling freedom of movement as well as trade, granting Irish

enterprises free access to a marketplace of 450 million people.

The fact that Ireland is a global tech hub couldn’t have happened without access to this massive population. The Single Market has supported the development of a harmonised digital market including as recently as last week, with new regulation having been enacted on the risks associated with AI.

And the importance of the EU to Ireland around major strategic issues such as energy security, cybersecurity, Brexit, Covid-19, climate action and the banking crisis cannot be overstated.

With the EU as a global economic powerhouse, decisions made in Brussels and Strasbourg resonate far beyond boardrooms. Businesses, particularly small to medium-sized enterprises, are the lifeblood of our economies, providing two out of three jobs and stability to millions. Indeed, they are the backbone of the economy, accounting for 99% of all businesses in the EU and more than half of its GDP.

As we cultivate and favour global enterprises, it is important to remember that all businesses start out small.

Ireland counts the largest building materials company in the world (CRH), the largest packaging company in the world (Smurfit Kappa) and the largest human nutrition company in the world (Glanbia) amongst businesses that started here and started as small family businesses or co-operatives. And you only have to look at the enormous success of companies like Stripe and Ryanair to see what continues to be possible.

In order to grow, SME’s need a supportive environment that empowers entrepreneurial risk taking, minimal administrative burdens, talent availability and stable financial systems. The entrepreneurs that found them and the executives that lead them, need to feel that the system has their back, not that it is getting in the way.

It goes without saying that political instability, corruption, war, pandemics and climate change create instability that can have dramatic effects on the potential for business performance, and as a consequence, business owners, shareholders and investors alike have a strong stake in upholding democratic values.

And business is not just about profits; it's about purpose.

Businesses that prioritise societal impact alongside financial success are increasingly valued, not only by investors but particularly by employees, and younger people.

Purposeful companies tend to create a sense of shared endeavour and meaning in their people, building a stake in the enterprise and contributing to organisation, individual and community well-being.

This shift towards stakeholder capitalism, where all stakeholders, not just shareholders, are considered, is a hugely positive change. Purposeful businesses are responsible corporate citizens. They ensure compliance with EU regulation, support pro-democracy institutions and employ responsible supply chains that focus on human rights and environmental sustainability. They also facilitate the creation of diverse and inclusive workplaces.

It is interesting to note that purpose-led companies financially outperform those that adopt fewer progressive policies. In fact, research undertaken as recently as last October shows that purpose-driven companies provided shareholders with a 13.6% compound annual growth return on average, over a twenty-year period. That's three times their closest industry competitors and five times the S&P 500.

So it does, in fact, pay to be good!

However, as we consider the future of business in Europe, we cannot ignore the elephant in the room: capitalism itself.

The pursuit of endless growth at the expense of our planet's health is unsustainable. Climate change, exacerbated by our current economic models, demands urgent action.

Moreover, economic insecurity breeds extremism. The rise of populism and far-right ideologies underscores the importance of inclusive growth.

Policies promoting education, healthcare, and social safety nets are imperative to ensure all citizens not only have a stake in economic success but feel that they have, reigniting a sense of personal agency, purpose and belief in the system.

Businesses, too, have a vital role to play in fostering inclusivity. Stakeholder capitalism, with its focus on equality, diversity and inclusion, offers a path forward. By prioritising sustainability and societal impact, businesses can help build a more just and resilient world.

In the face of these challenges, the next five years will test our resolve. As the EU enlarges and with a new Parliament in place this year, it will be essential to balance the diverse interests of member states with the traditional European values of freedom, economic growth, democracy and human rights.

In this context, it will be important for political and business leaders not just to defend

democracy but to actively promote it.

Embracing digital transformation, participating in the green transition, and championing

innovation while safeguarding intellectual property will be critical. Excellent political leadership and transparent regulatory environments are also indispensable.

As business leaders, politicians and policy makers, our adaptability, innovation and spirit

of collaboration will be our greatest assets.

We must seize the opportunities before us, navigate the challenges together and build a future that is prosperous, sustainable and just for all.

Thank you.


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