Posted by Mary Wimberley on 2007-04-25

The European Union's economic impact on Alabama is significant, both in incoming and outgoing business, its Ambassador to the U.S. told a Samford audience Tuesday.

Europe is more important to Alabama than either India or China, EU Ambassador John Bruton said at a breakfast sponsored by the Samford School of Business.

"In all, the EU accounts for more than $14.9 billion annually in export and investment dollars earned by Alabama, supporting more than 156,800 jobs within the state," said Bruton, a longtime government official in Ireland who was the nation's prime minister during 1994-97. He has been head of the EU ambassadorial delegation to the U. S. since 2004.

Bruton noted that the 27-nation EU is the top source of foreign direct investment dollars flowing into Alabama, which saw about $9.3 billion channeled to the state in 2004.

The 43,200 Alabamians who work in companies resulting from European investment, said Bruton, is more than three times that of jobs supported by investments from the Asia Pacific region.

The EU is also Alabama's largest export market, with some $5.6 billion in goods and services moving in that direction last year. "This supports more than 113,600 in-state jobs," he said.

Alabama's exports to the EU in 2006 were significantly more than the state's sales to Japan, China, and South Korea, and more than 73 times that of all goods and services sold to India.

Bruton's talk included a brief overview of the EU, which has grown from 6 to 27 members since its beginnings 50 years ago. The entity sets commercial/environmental standards, deals with foreign policy and development and humanitarian aid, and fights cross border crime.

"It is the only multinational democracy in human history," said Bruton of the EU, which stresses high standards of democratic governance for its members, including commitment to human rights, and respect for free markets and property rights, separation of powers, and the rule of law.

Bruton told his Samford audience that he would like to see a simplifying of standards for various products.

Many, such as drugs and cosmetics, must meet varying standards in Europe and the U.S. Even crash dummies used in automobile safety testing must pass different regulations, he said.

Bruton believes an ideal situation would be one in which both Europe and the U.S. could have confidence in each other's standards. "This would save an enormous amount in the cost of launching new products," he said.

A more common set of standards would mean, for instance, that if a product can get approval in the U.S., a venture capitalist would know that a product could also be sold in Europe, said Bruton. A result would be an easier "speed launch to market" of new products, and a reduction of unnecessary costs.

Asked about any potential risk on national sovereignty as a result of the recent acquisition of two prominent Alabama banks by EU-based banking companies, Bruton noted that the U.S. national debt is very low compared to that of other countries. "I wouldn't panic about your national debt," he said, noting that it is not linked to bank ownership. Bankers are unsentimental about national allegiance, said Bruton.

Bruton's talk at the Marriott Grandview was attended by several hundred local and state business leaders, Samford alumni, faculty and students.

While in Alabama, Bruton also visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, and met with Gov. Bob Riley in Montgomery. The three-day trip was his fourth visit to the state, he said.

Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.