Since Brexit, France has become Ireland's nearest neighbour in Europe. The UK's exit from the EU has meant a souring of Franco-British relations with French president Emmanuel Macron a huge critic of the UK government's refusal to honour the terms set out in the Brexit deal.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, French minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, and Clément Beaune, minister of State for European Affairs, visited Ireland in May as part of an effort to strengthen dialogue between France and Ireland. A political declaration "marking the first step toward the implementation of a joint action plan to strengthen bilateral co-operation in a large number of sectors" was signed during this visit.
Historically our two countries have had a congenial relationship but this has been strengthened even further in recent years, according to Margot Slattery, president of the France Ireland Chamber of Commerce and global head of diversity and inclusion at ISS.
“It’s been a great one for years. Even before Brexit it was a very cordial and nice relationship but I think in the last four to five years it has accelerated and become warmer. I can see the sense of intent on both parts to be more connected and to build on the relationships,” she says.
Aside from the recent declaration, both countries have a presence on the UN Security Council, there are new ferry routes between the two nations and there are many expats living in France, with an estimated 20,000 plus French living in Ireland too. One of the few sticking points and something France has frowned upon for years is Ireland’s low corporate tax rate.
Irish companies are now avoiding the UK landbridge by using direct ferries to France and are targeting the French and western European marketplace as an alternative to Britain to avoid customs frictions. Ireland and France have always had a strong trading relationship and indeed this relationship will continue to strengthen as more goods pass to and from Ireland via French ports, Simon McKeever chief executive of the Irish Exporters Association believes.
“Brexit has forced exporters, importers and supply chain professionals to revise and rethink inherent trading routes as well as some sourcing in order to safeguard the sound flow of goods to and from the island of Ireland. The opening up of an increased number of direct shipping routes from Ireland to mainland Europe has been transformational and is welcomed by Irish exporters as the direct shipping option has eased, to some degree, disruption that would have been caused by continuing to use the UK landbridge,” he says.
Ireland now has an opportunity to strengthen trade links with all EU member states, in particular those states with major ports, including France.
"Brexit and its implementation have caused a palpable shift in how Irish and EU business deal with each other," says Maria Deady, Dublin Chamber international project executive. "Irish companies for whom the UK was their primary trading partner are now looking to continental markets for their businesses and finding opportunities. Dublin Chamber's international department has seen an increase in queries from companies looking to take advantage of the Enterprise Europe Network to assist them to find new business partners in the EU.
“Moreover, there has been a substantial change in the logistics between Ireland and the EU making it easier than before,” she adds.
“The number of ferry services running between Ireland and the European continent has more than quadrupled compared to 2020. These direct routes are favourable as they cut out the delays that were seen due to the additional customs and regulatory checks imposed by Brexit when using the landbridge.
"Irish exporters see the value in utilising ports on the continent for routing goods to and from the continent as well as to further flung markets. I believe the uptake will continue, once these direct routes remain price and time competitive and as long as there is continued uncertainty about the UK's degree of preparation for Brexit. That being said, exporters have routing options to the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as French ports and decisions on what port to use depends on a number of factors including proximity and multimodal links to final destination, infrastructure, cost and ease of use," McKeever adds.
“This is still very much a new territory for businesses overall to grapple with and perhaps we are just beginning to learn and understand some (very few) positives coming from Brexit, which is forging closer relationships with EU member states that is strengthened by direct shipping links, particularly and most effectively those to northwestern France,” he says.
Slattery agrees, saying the markets accessible to Ireland, that is countries on the periphery of France, offer many options for growth. France is a landbridge for the whole of Europe. “Why would you go through Britain when you can go direct to the continent?” she asks.
Air connectivity has always been good between the two countries and was maintained between Dublin and Paris during lockdown. However, mandatory hotel quarantine for travellers from France drew ire from many French citizens living in Ireland.
Michael Collins, founder, travelmedia.ieis an expat living in the south of France. "The French ambassador to Ireland was very vocal when Ireland wrongly introduced mandatory hotel quarantine for travellers from France back in April. Both communities were cut off from each other. Many, including me, commuted between Ireland and France on a weekly basis. I always recognise faces on the Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Paris. Both Aer Lingus and Air France maintained connectivity between Dublin and Paris over the last year, even at the height of the pandemic including during the mandatory hotel quarantine period. It is not surprising that Paris was one of the few cities where connectivity was maintained throughout," he says.
Aside from this, it remains an “exceptionally strong relationship”, Collins adds.
“We see it already with increased freight capacity between Ireland and France out of our seaports. I believe this will translate also into increased consumer ferry traffic in the summer months. Ireland has an important role to play in Europe. The UK is still our closest neighbour, even if they are no longer in the EU. We can act as bridge between the EU and UK. France can see this.
“Ireland is now the only English-speaking country in the euro zone and EU. With no colonial legacy we can leverage our independent position, as we do currently at the UN Security Council. We have strong relationships with both the UK and US, which France and the rest of the EU can leverage. We are independent arbitrators. Small is good, small is nimble,” he says.
Collins hopes air capacity will return to 2019 levels by summer 2022. Pre-pandemic Ryanair, Aer Lingus and Transavia served 10-plus airports in France with nationwide access to France from Dublin.
Meanwhile, Government agencies such as Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia have an important foothold in France and continue to support Irish exporters attempting to break into the French market.
“The very fact that France operates in line with the EU’s customs union and single market makes it, and indeed all EU member states, more attractive places to do business in. Going back to basics and highlighting the benefits of trading under EU rules needs to be brought back to the fore and this is where Ireland and France have an opportunity to develop trade relations further. This is not to underestimate the importance of the UK as a market for Irish goods,” McKeever says.
In light of the revision of trade routes since January 1st, 2021, it is an ample opportunity, for exporters, if not already a necessity for some, to revise and diversify export/import destinations.
“However, I do believe the UK will remain a key market for Irish exporters due to the inherent similarities and familiarities that exist amongst them and indeed the very size of the UK market boasting of a population in excess of 66 million,” he says.
The Central Statistics Office reported that imports from Great Britain fell by 31 per cent since March 2020, perhaps signalling an opportunity to EU member states such as France as a potential source of supply.
Many industries look set to benefit from this strengthening in relations.
“Traditional agricultural goods are seen as being very strong, they buy lots of our goods already including milk, cheese, beef, butter, vegetables and herbs but everything from the service industry, consultancy, cybersecurity and lots of the financial services – there is a wide variety of trade on both sides. You’re also looking at luxury items produced here like whiskey and gin. We import a lot of wine but we export a lot of luxury goods,” Slattery says.
In terms of any threats to look out for, Ireland needs to remain competitive. “There’s no point in killing the golden goose. If the French are very positive towards us, what we can’t do is start upping our price or going in there with something that’s uncompetitive,” she adds.
“We are both members of the Security Council in the UN and for Ireland it’s very good to have France’s support on that. That doesn’t mean we enter into things without thought but it’s good to have our nearest neighbour with that kind of back up. I suppose that was more Britain’s role, we looked to them for that,” she says.
In terms of education, Erasmus is something the France Ireland Chamber encourages and they remain supportive of its continuity.
The Irish expat community in France is strong and active, Collins says.
“Every other year we celebrate that relationship at the Wild Geese Ball in Paris pre-France hosting Ireland in the Six Nations, in aid of the Ireland Fund de France, which raises millions every year for Irish charities worldwide,” he says.
This level of good cheer looks set to continue long into the future.