As it stands, arguably Ireland’s most important trading and investment partner is the United Kingdom. This has been the case since Independence although the balance has shifted greatly since Ireland entered the EEC in 1973 with the UK no longer wholly dominant despite our reliance on the UK in certain sectors such as beef, timber, pork and much more.
As Ireland’s reliance on the UK as a trading partner has diminished, it has been able to look to a wider market largely thanks to membership of the EU both in terms of exporting to EU member states as well as using EU trade deals to export to third parties.
Following the UK’s decision to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump as President of the US with a far more protectionist outlook, Ireland must now use its EU membership to develop new markets and make the most of trade deals.
One of Ireland’s closest political and trading partners is France. Our two countries have maintained a close relationship for decades and can look back on a century-long shared history. Saint Patrick trained in France before making his way to Ireland in the fifth century. From the sixteenth century, France became an important destination for Irish Catholics as they were able to receive priestly training there and thus escape anti-Catholic restrictions facing them in Ireland. Nearly thirty Irish colleges existed on the Continent, including one in Paris founded in 1578, the Collège des Irlandais, which was turned into Ireland’s largest cultural centre overseas and is now home to Irish students in Paris as well as exhibitions of contemporary Irish art. While some Irish Catholics sought refuge in France over the centuries, the Huguenot Cemetery, founded in 1693 on Merrion Street near Dublin’s St. Stephen’s Green, is testament to the French Protestant community which formed in Dublin in the aftermath of French King Louis XIV’s Edict of Nantes. France and Ireland’s republican movement shared strategic interests over the centuries and were particularly united in their fight against Great Britain, for instance in 1798, the “Year of the French”, French support was crucial in the creation of Ireland’s first Republic, John Moore’s Republic of Connacht. Moreover, the design of Ireland’s flag was inspired by the French tricolour. Samuel Beckett did not only spend most of his literary career in Paris and published his work in French as well as in English but also got awarded the Médaille de la Résistance for his participation in the French resistance to German occupation during the Second World War.
About 20,000 French citizens today live in Ireland and cultural ties between our two countries remain strong. Ireland’s tradition of French language teaching is remarkable. The world’s first teaching chair of French was created at Trinity College in 1776 and about sixty per cent of Irish secondary school students choose to study French as their first foreign language.
The French market offers great opportunities for Irish businesses and is easy to access as it is also part of the European single market and the Eurozone and due to its geographic proximity with 31 flight connections and three sea crossings. With a GDP of €1.98 trillion, France is the fifth largest economy in the world and the second largest in Europe. It is the fifth largest exporter of goods and services and as the fifth largest recipient of foreign direct investment (FDI), France is home to many multinationals. France has the highest number of Fortune 500 companies of any European country. Becoming part of the supply chain of one of the many global commercial leaders based in France such as Renault, Sanofi or L’Oreal may help Irish businesses gain access to other markets.
Bilateral trade between France and Ireland is worth about €8.9 billion and has grown significantly over the last few years. Irish exports to France, Ireland’s sixth largest customer, grew by 4.6% in 2015 while imports increased by 13%. France is Ireland’s third largest import market, with chemicals and pharmaceuticals making up about a third of imports. Almost two-fifths of Irish exports to France are pharmaceuticals (worth €2.4 billion) while chemicals make up about 16% of Irish exports to France. With a stock of about €5 billion of assets held by Irish investors in France, France is the ninth largest destination for Irish investment in Europe. More than 200 Irish businesses employ about 18,000 people in France. Major Irish investors in France include the building material company CRH, the packaging company Smurfit-Kappa, Glen Dimplex, Kingspan, DCC and Kerry Group.
By the same token, France is the fourth largest source of foreign direct investment into Ireland with investment from France estimated at approximately €17.5 billion. About 350 French companies operate in Ireland and employ about 20,000 people. 39% of French FDI into Ireland is invested in the insurance sector (e.g. AXA, CACI, Coface, Euler Hermes, SCOR) while 29% of investment from France into Ireland goes to the agrifood sector (e.g. Danone, Pernod Ricard). Moreover, the Luas trams have been provided by French company Alstom.
France is the third largest market for Irish indigenous company exports, the second largest export market for beef and whiskey and Ireland’s largest export market for seafood and lamb. Ireland also continues to be a popular holiday destination for French tourists who constitute the fourth largest group of visitors coming to Ireland.
Enterprise Ireland, who already support more than 400 of their clients sell into France, have been increasingly active in their efforts to promote Irish businesses and strengthen international trade ties and have thus laid some important groundwork to open up new markets for Irish companies.
Cooperation between our two countries is not only restricted to trade but French and Irish companies and research institutions cooperate very closely in R&D sectors such as energy, agronomy, health care, digital technology, biotechnology and maritime science. Joint Franco-Irish projects have also been very successful in attracting EU research funding. 40 per cent of Irish projects selected under the EU’s Horizon 2020 research funding framework included at least one French partner.
Even before the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU, Irish companies were increasingly trading with France. However, in a post-Brexit world, even closer economic ties with one of Europe’s leading economies, which is on Ireland’s doorstep and a member of the same currency union, offer promising opportunities for Irish companies and constitute an important step in the Irish government’s aim to diversify Irish trade.
The French economy is known to be less prone to boom and bust cycles and, despite having faced some difficulties over the last few years, returned to growth in 2013. The election of Emmanuel Macron as Président de la République has led to a new wave of Europhilia across the continent and raised many hopes across Europe that Macron would be able to take France and Europe forward. Macron, aged 39 and thus France’s youngest head of state since Napoleon, and new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD, who with 38 was just last week elected Ireland’s youngest Fine Gael Taoiseach since W. T. Cosgrave, are both outstanding examples of a new generation of young European politicians who seek to modernize Europe’s economies, are progressive on social issues and have moved away from the traditional conflict between left and right as the defining political fault line. The two young, charismatic politicians met in April 2017 when Leo Varadkar visited one of Macron’s election rallies in Paris and witnessed firsthand Macron’s ability to inspire large crowds and to get them involved in his pro-European and socially and economically liberal campaign.
France and Ireland have maintained diplomatic relations since 1922, have been working together closely in the EU and the UN for a number of decades and have been sharing similar views on issues such as UN reform, official development assistance, the EU’s common agricultural policy, fisheries and the Common Foreign and Security Policy. Macron and Varadkar will now build on these already deep and strong foundations and will work together for a Brexit settlement that acknowledges Ireland’s special status in relation to Brexit. On Leo Varadkar’s first full day in office as Taoiseach, he spoke to Mr. Macron about the challenges and opportunities which Brexit entails and about advancing the EU reform agenda.
We will never have a better trading partner than the UK nor will we ever replace its preeminent role in Irish commerce but it is vital that we seek to further our economic ties with countries all around the world and the obvious first ports of call must be those closest to home with the easiest levels of access.
L’Europe en marche!
Senator Neale Richmond is the Fine Gael spokesman on EU Affairs in Seanad Éireann.