A strange thing happened in the eurozone economy at the end of last year. Despite widespread forecasts that the common currency area would plunge into recession and register negative growth in the last quarter of 2022, it managed to eke out a small gain of 0.1 percent. What is remarkable is not that Europe beat expectations, but that it was one small country—Ireland—whose surging economy single-handedly prevented the eurozone from slipping into the red.
Almost unbelievably, little Ireland, with a population of only 5 million, now has the economic scale to shift the growth statistics of the entire eurozone and its 343 million inhabitants. In 2022, Irish GDP growth of 12.2 percent compared to 3.5 percent in the eurozone as a whole. In absolute numbers, only Germany, France, and Italy contributed more than Ireland to eurozone GDP growth in 2021 and 2022. Ireland’s economic boom has enabled the country’s government to post a budget surplus of 1.6 percent of GDP, even as eurozone countries struggled with an average deficit of more than 3 percent.
Honestly, who wouldn’t want this luck of the Irish?
Look closely, however, and Ireland’s so-called economic miracle looks more than a little odd. The country’s growth is simultaneously both real and artificial. Much of it is driven by a handful of U.S. multinationals, which continue to route global sales and profits through their Irish operations to take advantage of Dublin’s lower business taxes. Although difficult and complex to calculate, Apple’s shifting of intellectual property assets to Ireland is estimated to have contributed half of Ireland’s miraculous 26 percent GDP growth in 2016. That bizarre fact inspired New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to ridicule Ireland’s “leprechaun economics”—and the Irish statistics office to move away from using GDP as a measure of economic growth.
Yet the surge of U.S. investment in Ireland is also real. In particular, Ireland’s role as a pharmaceuticals manufacturing hub dramatically increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nine out of the world’s top 10 drug companies have significant production facilities in Ireland. The U.S. State Department thinks the corporate build-out in Ireland will continue, given Ireland’s status as the only remaining English-speaking European Union country following Britain’s departure. That makes it easy for international companies to operate and enjoy barrier-free access to the EU’s single market.
It’s hard to exaggerate Ireland’s dependence on U.S. tech and pharma companies for investment and taxes. Corporate tax receipts are now the second-largest source of tax revenue (after income tax) for the Irish state: 27 percent of all tax income in 2022. The average was just 9 percent in the 38 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2020, the last year for which data is available. This, in turn, is fueling an unprecedented torrent of tax income for the Irish government. Corporate tax revenues were up nearly 50 percent in 2022 alone.
Just 10 multinationals—all of them U.S.-based tech and pharmaceutical companies—now pay nearly 60 percent of Ireland’s corporate tax. Directly and indirectly, U.S. multinationals employ more than 375,000 people in Ireland, approximately 15 percent of the country’s labor force. Driven by investment from the United States, foreign multinationals now account for 53 percent of all payroll taxes paid by corporate employers.
Driven by the windfall in corporate tax receipts, the Irish government’s budget surplus is expected to swell further, to 10 billion euros in 2023 and 16 billion euros in 2024. Relative to the size of the economy, this would be equivalent to a U.S. budget surplus of more than 1 trillion dollars in 2024.
The problem for Ireland is that this singular dependence exposes the country to growing risks. Take the tech sector: As multinationals like Google, Microsoft, Meta, and Amazon see their profits shrink and slash jobs worldwide, it will not only hurt the Irish economy, but deprive Dublin of tax income as well.
What’s more, the threat to Ireland’s stability from its overdependence on U.S. companies is about to be multiplied. In 2021, nearly 140 tax jurisdictions, including Ireland, agreed to a major reform of how multinationals companies will be taxed in the future. Pillar 2 of these reforms—a minimum corporate tax rate of 15 percent for large companies—is already coming into effect. In 2024, Ireland’s corporate tax rate is due to increase to 15 percent from its current level of 12.5 percent, reducing its attractiveness as a tax haven compared to other countries. The United States also approved the minimum tax plan in August 2022, despite significant private sector and political opposition.
However, it is Pillar 1 of the OECD’s reforms that will dramatically erode Ireland’s future income from corporate taxes. This reform will reallocate a share of company profits to where sales (or users) are actually located. Previously, tax liability was calculated on where the company or its subsidiary was legally based, no matter how many profits it rerouted from other parts of the world for tax-avoiding purposes. For Ireland, the consequences are obvious: U.S. multinationals operating in the EU will be forced to divide some of their sales by member state, thus significantly reducing the amount of sales and profits that can be “booked” through Ireland. This reform is due to come into force in 2024. The end of Ireland’s windfall is therefore only a matter of time.
The Irish Department of Finance estimated in January that around half of Ireland’s corporate tax receipts—$10 billion—are “transitionary” and will be lost as the new tax rules are implemented. That translates to more than 10 percent of total government spending in 2022—more than the entire Irish education budget. This is putting the Irish government on the precipice of another financial disaster, little more than a decade after it had to be bailed out of impending bankruptcy by the European Commission, European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. That disaster left Ireland with one of the highest per capita public debt levels in the world.
Regardless of the impending financial train wreck, however, Dublin is unlikely to wake up from its American dream anytime soon. Diversifying its economy and revenue sources away from U.S. multinationals would require Ireland to shift its economic and geopolitical orientation, downgrade (in Dublin’s eyes) its deep relationship with the United States, and seek greater integration into the EU economy and its myriad rules.
That’s because Ireland’s dependence on U.S. multinationals is just another expression of the country’s affinity with the United States—the “shared heritage” referenced by U.S. presidents from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan to Joe Biden. These ties to the United States long precede Dublin’s embrace of European integration and make it unlikely that Ireland will ever have the same intensity of economic, cultural, and other ties to France, Germany, or the rest of the EU.
The approaching economic and fiscal train wreck resulting from the new tax rules requires a fundamental change of mindset from Irish policymakers. Squaring the circle—holding on to its deep U.S. ties while integrating more closely with the EU to diversify its economy—means Dublin must give a little (and lose a little) to both sides. Yet Ireland’s ability to navigate this conundrum is doubtful. Even though the coming changes have been plain for all to see, Dublin’s current Trade and Investment Strategy does not contain any concrete policies to mitigate the overdependence on U.S. investment flows. Although the document acknowledges that EU market opportunities are underutilized, it again recognizes the importance “markets such as the UK and the US, which offer familiarity with language and culture.”
If there is no short-term solution to Ireland’s financial vulnerabilities, a few longer-term needs stand out. Dublin should ensure that its current budget surplus is invested wisely to help diversify its drivers of growth. One such driver would be significant increases in public investment in housing and public transport infrastructure to bring the country closer to Western European standards. Ireland’s tax base should be widened to allow for a wider distribution of income sources. For example, In 2021, Ireland gained just 5 percent of its tax receipts from property taxes, compared to more than 11 percent in both Britain and the United States.
Most importantly, Ireland must deepen its trading relationships outside the English-speaking world. Notwithstanding the country’s 50-year membership of the EU, a dearth of foreign language teaching has created a monolingual business culture, which priorities existing links with the United States over the development of new markets, both within and outside the EU. This needs to change if Ireland is to build a sustainable economic model.
Biden—whose family, like so many in the United States, has Irish roots—said in 2021 that “everything between Ireland and the United States runs deep.” This is Ireland’s economic reality today. As the corporate tax boom ebbs, Ireland should ensure that its American dream doesn’t become a recurring economic and financial nightmare.