Ireland may geographically be closer to Britain, but politically, with Brexit, and the UK becoming a ‘third country outside the EU, France is now the Republic’s closest neighbour - a relationship the French are keen to develop and deepen.
This was one of the key messages of Vincent Guérend, the French Ambassador to Ireland, who was in Galway last weekend to promote the Embassy’s campaign of ‘France, Your Closest EU Neighbour / An Fhrainc, Bhur gComharsa Is dLúithe San AE’.
Ambassador Guérend is originally from Normandy and was appointed French Ambassador in September 2020 - right in the middle of the Covid crisis.
“It was very challenging,” he tells me, during our Friday evening interview in The Galmont Hotel. “As a diplomat you usually meet people through gatherings, receptions, but this didn’t exist at all. All my contacts and courtesy calls had to be done online, and it’s different introducing someone online and physically. It was a new experiment, but it was nobody’s fault, it was just fate.”
‘A new neighbourhood’
The ambassador with GMIT staff (LtoR ): Eimear Ó Tuathaigh, léachtóir le Gaeilge/Fraincis; Jennifer Duffy, Erasmus & Exchange Coordinator Officer; Dr Carine Gachon, Transcend Project Manager; Dr Sarah Berthaud, French Lecturer; HE Vincent Guérend, French Ambassador to Ireland; Mariam Diallo, Cultural and University Counsellor, Embassy of France in Ireland; Dr Orla Flynn, GMIT President; Catherine Gagneux, French Honorary Consul for Connacht and Donegal; Dr Patrick Delassus, School of Engineering; and Morgane Pommier, GMIT research student.
Now, as the worst of the pandemic appears to be passing, Ambassador Guérend is setting to the task of vigorously promoting Ireland and France’s new closeness. During his visit to Galway, he met representatives of French businesses here; the Mayor of Galway, Cllr Colette Connolly; and Music for Galway, and visited NUI Galway, the GMIT, and Údaras na Gaeltachta.
He argues that the new Franco-Irish relationship is already off to a good start, both diplomatically and in terms of trade.
“There is a new neighbourhood,” he says. “Since January 1, Ireland and France discovered that they became the closest neighbours in the EU, and we want to tell the Irish people that we are your closest neighbour.”
All member States have had to reposition themselves and work with each other without the UK, and we French are glad to compare more notes with the Irish Government. I understand the Irish are interested in strengthening their links with France, in 2019, the Department of Foregin Affairs adopted a new strategy to increase its presence in Paris and opened a general consulate in Lyon.
“We want to reciprocate, and have adopted a joint action plan which is a government to government political document signed between the foregin ministers which has paved the way for a very broad and deep political cooperation across the board.”
Indeed, within weeks of Britain formally leaving the EU, trade routes between the Republic and France received a significant boost.
“We have moved, from having 11 weekly ship rotations between Irish and French ports to having 44,” says Ambassador Guérend. “Now we have daily ship rotation between Rosslare and Cherbourg, and Cork and Roscoff, but we have added seven weekly rotations between Rosslare and Dunkirk, which means that the traffic - goods and lorries - has tremendously increased, and this is the best illustration of this new neighbourhood and how Irish goods can bypass landbridge, and avoid the queues and administrative hurdles, and go directly to the rest of the single market, via a direct route.”
Between the two states, there is trade of close to €11 million annually, mainly in pharmaceuticals, while France is the first destination for Irish sea food and Irish lamb. France is the third supplier for imports for Ireland, after the UK and US, and the seventh destination for Irish exports.
Most major French companies are represented in Ireland, employing 12,000 to 15,000 staff, including automotive parts supplier, Valeo, based in Tuam. “Trade and investment are very good, but we want to do more and support trade and investment on both sides,” says Ambassador Guérend.
‘Digital giants cannot escape their obligations’
However, a potential sticking point is Ireland’s 12.5 per cent rate of corporation tax which France views as too low. During his recent visit to Ireland, French President Emmanuel Macron [pictured above] noted that the Covid-19 pandemic showed a need for “in-depth change” of the “classical business model” on tax rates.
Given our corporation tax rate has been a keystone of the State’s economic policy, the Government is wary of making concessions on this, and Ireland was one of a small number of countries which held out on signing the global OECD framework, which would raise the rate to 15 per cent. Yet, could President Macron’s views be seen as interfering in the tax policies of another state?
“In the EU, there are few pockets left where you can say it is an internal matter, as we have signed up to treaties and are pooling our sovereignty, including on currency and foireging policy,” says Ambassador Guérend, “so it is hard to say that taxation policy is just a domestic issue. It is a European issue.
HE Vincent Guérend, French Ambassador to Ireland and Catherine Gagneux, French Honorary Consul for Connacht and Donegal.
“The French position says, in the Eurozone, we see more and more activity going to the digital market, where the big players are paying little tax, and this is impossible to explain to, say, a local bookshop that they have to pay revenue tax, while Amazon and others have to pay very little. It is unethical.
“We have big revenue issues as we have to reimburse the huge debt we had to take on to help our businesses, society, and the economy over the last 18 months. We have to address this and cannot see these digital giants escaping their taxpayer obligations. There is a growing consensus within the OECD on this and we really hope the Irish will join the consensus soon.”
An EU army?
Another major area of concern, and a difference between Ireland and France is the issue of defence and the EU. Many are concerned that the Republic’s singing up to PESCO - Permanent Structured Cooperation, a part of the EU’s security and defence policy, in which 25 of the 27 national armed forces pursue structural integration - will ultimately lead to an EU army, and that in future Irelamnd will be required to spend two per cent of GDP (c€3 billion a year ) on the military and weaponry.
Is this really the right direction for the EU, given that in 2012 it was given the Nobel Prize for advancing the causes of peace, reconciliation, democracy, and human rights in Europe?
“What we consider, from a French perspective, and many member states share this view, is that the world has many challenges,” replies Ambassador Guérend. “Some are the product of climate change, others are linked to defence, and the other challenge is that there are countries asserting themselves in ways not always friendly, which are very competitive, and where the only answer of the EU cannot just be peace and dialogue.
“We have to show we are ready to defend our prosperity and values, including through military means. When I say this, I speak about what happens in the Middle East, and some parts of Africa, where the only answer cannot just be development, there also has to be peacekeeping with robust military means.
“We have also seen recently that most European countries which are NATO members, heavily count on NATO as a lifeline, but that lifeline is not as 100 per cent the right answer to all the crisis, and in certain cases, it’s for the EU alone to make sure that, in its immediate vicinity, peace and prosperity prevails, where maybe our allies see things differently.
“That’s where we very much believe, on the French side, that it’s time for the EU to be better equipped with all kinds of instruments - development, trade, hardcore security instruments - to be able to be more autonomous. One of the keywords here is ‘strategic autonomy’, where we have to be able to, as a union of 450 million inhabitants, defend our peace, prosperity, and values, on our own, or at least with other like minded. That’s where we believe the EU has to be ready to scale up its capacity, not as a threat to anyone, but as a way to protect what it has to protect.”
Brexit and the border
France has been one of Ireland’s staunchest allies over the course of Brexit, and deeply supportive of the State’s determination that the British border in Ireland will not be allowed, once again, to become a hard border. With Britain seeking numerous changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the DUP threatening to collapse the power-sharing institutions, can Ireland continue to rely on France and the EU?
“Yes,” replies Ambassador Guérend. “We have been, along with the rest of the EU member states and institutions, very much on the side of Ireland and peace in Northern Ireland, and the unity and integrity of the single market - which is so important for the well-being and prosperity of the EU citizen - and we will continue to do so.
“We will continue to consider that the international agreement between the EU and the UK has to be respected and implemented, and that any flexibility can be discussed bilaterally, and not unilaterally, we will certainly continue to work closely with the Irish Government and the EU, and show complete solidarity to see how to move forward.”