Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 15 June 2022

Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs

Engagement with the French Ambassador

H.E. Mr. Vincent Gu?rend:

I am not sure how to answer the Deputy's question here but when it comes to Poland and Hungary in particular, nothing has been set aside. In the EU institutions, the Commission and so on, the various legal proceedings against Hungary are still running and we have not put that aside just because of the difficult hour of the day due to the war in Ukraine and so on.

There is no compromising on values, human rights and rule of law in Poland and Hungary, because of our concern about Russia and energy supply and the need to have both Poland and Hungary on board. When Commission President von der Leyen visited Warsaw very recently, she again stressed that the share Poland should receive from the recovery package was still conditional on reforms to its justice system.

Cohesion within the EU is still strong. Yes, we have difficult debates with Hungary on sanctions in terms of various aspects or individuals. The Deputy will recall that Hungary has asked that the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church be excluded from the sanctions. It has also asked that sanctions not go to 100%, but to 90%, on fuel supply etc. Hungary is a difficult partner but it is still around the table and, ultimately, it is still supportive of the general move. When one looks back, the cohesion of the group is still remarkable and the reaction was very swift and united, all in all.

When it comes to the French Presidency and its cycle and, more generally, I felt the heat in respect of how great the hazard was that the whole EU, which is such an important project, could be jeopardised by a few million voters in France or elsewhere. I see what the Deputy means. I can only speak for France here but I guess it is the same in other member states. Time and again, we have to make clear that the EU delivers, is close to the citizen and, ultimately, is the best answer to the problems and not the root of the problem. I confess this is especially challenging to make clear in France, for many reasons. The only heartening lesson in France over the past couple of years is that even Ms Le Pen is no longer talking about exiting the EU or the euro. She is now just talking about reforming the EU. The so-called Frexit is no longer an issue in France.

One may say that, on the left side, Mr. Mélenchon is basically openly calling, not to leave the EU, but to disobey the rules and to become rogue when it comes to the EU institutional framework. He does not have the majority of the vote in France and is still far from a majority. If one combines the left and extreme left or the right and the extreme right, it is true that they add up to quite a significant number of French voters but, if one looks at the presidential election, even though many voters did not show up, a strong majority was for a very pro-European president. I see that the ice is sometimes thin but the agenda of the French President has been remarkably constant in continuing to push EU integration and the EU agenda, rather than weakening it.

I see the broader perspective and the points of view of Ireland and other member states that our prosperity is shared and of the risk it can be jeopardised by one member state. We have to continue to make sure that policy delivers and that the citizens feel part of the debate and that, with all its limitations, was very much what the French President tried to do. Of course it was a kind of a bet to have the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union at the same time as our electoral cycle. The President won that bet and he will win again on Sunday. Being pro-European remains a winning ticket in France. He also wanted to consolidate this EU anchor in France by having the two coincide this semester.

When it comes to a two-speed Europe or core members and others, we all know that all member states want to be in the core. Nobody wants to be on the fringe. Those who are on the fringe are gradually coming to the core. I am thinking of Denmark in terms of defence and Croatia, which will soon join the euro. Some member states are still not willing to join the euro. Czechia and Sweden are part of the trio. When France presented this Permanent Structured Cooperation, PESCO, a couple of years ago, all but one member state joined. Ireland also joined. We see that everybody wants to be in the first league and not the second, which is reassuring.

However, it is true that the more the EU evolves and the more member states there are, the more it will be difficult to keep the same pace for all. We believe the answers to that are more qualified majority voting or, indeed, depending on the policies and the agreement of all, structured co-operation in certain cases. When it comes to European non-EU member states, such as our Swiss and Norwegian friends and maybe, one day, the Ukrainians, we will have to see other mechanisms of co-operation.

The French Government over the past 30 years, basically since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the early discussion on EU accession enlargement in the early 1990s, has been invoking a two-speed Europe. It has not done so as a threat to all those who are less convinced by deeper integration, but an appeal to the need for further integration and not to necessarily just adopt the pace of the slow ones.

Maybe I was a bit short on Africa in my introductory remarks. Within the EU and, certainly, in France, the feeling is that for the 20 years and more to come, the importance of Africa is such that we cannot devolve enough resources to it, because of its size, proximity and the many challenges it faces. Moreover, all the efforts made over the past 50 or 60 years have been very important but probably not sufficient to address these challenges and that the format of the previous EU-Africa summits were not necessarily delivering in terms of substance and dynamics.

This time, we decided not to have all African heads of state. There were also, in fairness, issues as a result of coups etc. We wanted to concentrate on the institution of the African Union, which is also a very good dialogue partner. We also wanted to focus more on civil society because in many African countries where states' institutions are weak, there is a very vibrant civil society in business, culture, education and youth. There was a whole forum on civil society.

Ultimately, we wanted the delegation led by the European Commission to be a little less dominated by development issues, although they are important, and more driven by a political agenda, where we really address political and security issues of these countries. I do not say this is a magic wand and there is a magical way to complete the relationship in the 20 years to come. The strong attempt was to establish a more political dialogue with the African Union and help it even more in being the kind of driving force for the continent.