Groundbreaking Irish leader talks tech, Trump at SXSW

The deep ties between the United States and Ireland are increasingly being measured in bytes and bits as well as heritage, Ireland’s groundbreaking prime minister said at South by Southwest on Sunday.

“We have tried to make Ireland the tech capital of Europe, the tech hub of Europe,” said Leo Varadkar, who at age 38 became his nation’s youngest prime minister ever when he was elected last June, and also its first openly gay leader and its first of Indian descent.

Varadkar noted that Ireland has become a European base in recent years for a number of U.S. tech giants, such as Facebook and Google parent Alphabet Inc. Round Rock-based Dell Technologies employs about 6,000 people in the country, including workers at its various subsidiaries.

In a wide-ranging interview conducted by the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith in front of an audience of SXSW attendees — and just days before Varadkar is scheduled to meet with President Donald Trump in Washington — the prime minister described his nation’s burgeoning tech sector as fueled in part by free trade.

Trump recently announced tariffs on steel and aluminum, a policy Varadkar on Sunday called misguided.

”When trade works well, it is fair and it works for everybody,” said Varadkar, whose official title in Ireland is taoiseach. “We are (a nation) that has always believed in trade. We want people to be able to trade freely and invest across borders.”

He said that about 100,000 people in the United States work for Irish companies and about 50,000 in Ireland work for U.S. companies.

Varadkar didn’t mention an ongoing controversy regarding billions of dollars’ worth of preferential tax treatment that European Union regulators have contended Ireland awarded to U.S.-based Apple, one of Ireland’s largest employers, and Smith didn’t ask him about it. Varadkar previously has said Ireland plans to begin collecting the disputed taxes, even as both the Irish government and Apple are appealing the case in court.

But pressed by Smith, Varadkar said he will make his case for free trade when he meets with Trump this week.

“As a policy, I can’t imagine how it would be good for anyone,” he said of the new tariffs announced by Trump. “It’s a road that I don’t want either Europe or America to go down.”

Though steel isn’t a major export for Ireland, he said he fears the tariffs will spark a wider trade war that will end up hurting his nation’s economy. He noted there already has been talk of the EU retaliating with tariffs on U.S.-made products, such as motorcycles and whiskey.

“When I hear bourbon whiskey (mentioned as a possible target for retaliation), the next thing I think you might hear is tariffs on Irish whiskey,” Varadkar said.

With prompting from Smith, he also delved into a number of other topics on which he disagrees with Trump and which he said he might bring up during next week’s meeting, including climate change and LGBT rights. He said the benefits of low taxes are one policy area in which he agrees with Trump.

On LGBT rights, Varadkar said he is disappointed in some of the Trump administration’s stances, and he said he intends to visit the Stonewall National Monument in New York during his trip. The monument is at the site of riots in 1969 that helped spark the gay rights movement.

“What I intend to say is, for the vast majority of people around the world … we have always seen America as a beacon of freedom” and the birthplace of LGBT rights, Varadkar said. “It is really tough to see a country that is built on freedom somehow not being a world leader in that space anymore.”

Overall, he said he thinks the United States and Europe must remain united as they confront dangers around the globe.

“The risk of a drift in the relationships between America and the European Union” is worrisome, he said. “I fear for the world if the United States and Europe weren’t on the same side.”

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