Friday 30 September 2016

Hollande's hand of friendship is very welcome but we should be wary too

Published 23/07/2016 | 02:30

Special case: Enda Kenny and Francois Hollande. Picture: Frank McGrath
Special case: Enda Kenny and Francois Hollande. Picture: Frank McGrath

Not since Thierry Henry handled that ball has a Frenchman dominated so much headline space in Ireland.

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The hand of friendship offered by Francois Hollande during his visit to Dublin this week was exactly the tonic Taoiseach Enda Kenny needed after a tough few weeks that hadn't been helped by his old friend, Angela Merkel. But while very welcome, we should also be wary about the French President's entente cordiale.

There is little doubt that the Government will be able to use his public description of Ireland as a "special situation" to leverage more support across Europe.

And Mr Kenny will no doubt go back to Ms Merkel to see if she would like to reassess her view that we are just another voice amid a din of European panic.

However, it's worth recalling that both Mr Hollande and Ms Merkel told us we were a 'special case' at the height of the economic crash too.

In 2012, the German leader caused dismay when she said "legacy" debt would not be covered by the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) bailout fund, effectively undermining Finance Minister Michael Noonan's efforts to secure an EU deal to ease our debt burden.

A few days later after a series of phone calls between Dublin and Berlin, Mr Kenny and Ms Merkel issued a joint statement insisting Ireland was a "special case".

With some hesitation, Mr Hollande followed suit and acknowledged our "unique circumstances".

Ultimately though, very little tangible results came from those statements.

And that's one reason why we should read Mr Hollande's latest backing for Ireland with caution.

One question worth asking is the price of French support.

It would be naïve to think that Mr Hollande doesn't have his own agenda.

In this post-Brexit world everybody stands to lose something and several EU countries are already sceptical about Ireland's continued attempts to be a 'special case' on everything from water charges to defence and tax.

Mr Hollande promised that tax harmonisation will not form any part of the Brexit talks but notably he left it on the table for separate negotiations.

"If we're going to look for harmonisations it's nothing to do with Brexit," he said.

It has been clear for a long-time that the French would love to clamp down on our generous 12.5pc corporation tax rate and that hasn't changed.

On defence, Mr Hollande acknowledged Ireland is limited by its neutrality in terms of our contribution to EU defences - but there's little doubt the French would like a closer union in this regard too.

Their push for an 'EU army' is easy to understand given recent events but it goes against many of Ireland's core values, meaning that apart from some peacekeeping missions and the exchange of information we are of little use to him right now.

If you want evidence that the French put their own interests first, just look at what happened when retailers there refused to buy Irish or any foreign meat.

Mr Hollande's government insisted all public institutions buy only French products - contrary to the basic principles of the free market.

And let's not forget that Jean Claude Trichet was a Frenchman.

He is the person who told Michael Noonan that a "bomb would go off in Dublin" if he attempted to burn senior bondholders in 2011. So while it is true Mr Hollande's acceptance of the Good Friday Agreement means Ireland is more than just another player in the Brexit talks, we must also be conscious that in European diplomacy, words are useful but not definitive.

Irish Independent

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