French ambassador: Distance will not protect Ireland from Russia's war

Distance 'no longer relevant' in a world where rockets can travel 600km, warns French ambassador to Ireland
French ambassador: Distance will not protect Ireland from Russia's war

French Ambassador to Ireland Vincent Guérend says the actions of Russia in Ukraine pose a 'major threat' to the EU. Picture: Jim Coughlan

As an ambassador of a country on the western fringe of Europe, Vincent Guérend says distance from the war in Ukraine does not protect France — or any other Western European country, such as Ireland — from threats in Eastern Europe or elsewhere in the world.

“I would say that now, in this globalised world with so much interdependencies, distance is no longer relevant," he said.

"We've seen this — there's now shortage on microchips, and they're produced in Taiwan or in China, and it has a direct effect on the availability of cars or materials using microchips in Western Europe.”

He pointed to the “huge imbalances” in commodity and food markets, creating major price rises on items such as sunflower oil, because of the war in Ukraine.

“We have all this massive influx of refugees coming from Ukraine, which is 3,000km away, coming as far as to Ireland," he said.

 So, distance is no longer either an obstacle or protection against threats.

The French ambassador to Ireland said rogue states such as North Korea are developing rockets which could travel as far as 6,000km.

“I am not saying it will reach Ireland the next day, but I mean distance is shrinking massively. And so, the geographic location of Ireland is certainly no longer a protection.” 

In an interview at his plush residence, he laid out the main threats that Europe, including Ireland, now faces.

He said the actions of Russia in Ukraine posed a “major threat” to the EU as there are “no limits” to its breaches of international law.

“That’s an existential threat to the EU and certainly for some EU member states who are directly neighbouring Russia, but even beyond," he said. 

"This is something that was looming and is now a reality.” 

Added to Russia are threats from China, climate change, migrant crises, cyber threats, as well as disinformation.

These were outlined in detail in the latest security blueprint agreed by EU states last March in the Strategic Compass for Security and Defence.

Greater co-operation

It mapped out far greater co-operation between member states in defence and security strategy, major increases in defence spending and stronger EU military task forces.

However, Mr Guérend stressed the document places no additional obligations on Ireland and that Ireland’s legal position on not joining an EU defence alliance remains unchanged. But the EU, and Ireland, are seeing how far the boundaries of cooperation can be explored, even pushed.

“This document doesn’t corner member states in the EU that are neutral," the ambassador said.

"It does, and agreed by all, oblige them to cooperate and raise their guard."

He said France respects Ireland’s foreign policy and its neutrality.

“But it doesn’t mean that this policy cannot evolve [or] this policy cannot or should not be adapted to a new environment,” he said.

Ireland's foreign policy has to be adapted to a new environment in which Russia or China may not respect neutrality, said the French ambassador. Picture: Emilio Morenatti/AP
Ireland's foreign policy has to be adapted to a new environment in which Russia or China may not respect neutrality, said the French ambassador. Picture: Emilio Morenatti/AP

He said his understanding is that the policy has evolved between independence and today.

“We completely respect Irish neutrality,” he said. “At the same time, we consider that it has also to be adapted to the new environment and that it is for the Irish people and the Irish Government to see how this adaptation is to take place, at what pace, and with which objective and goal, but, like everything, it has adapt.”

Commenting on Ireland’s agreement with the British military to allow the RAF to operate over Irish airspace in the event of a hostile plane entering it, he said: 

It means that co-operation is always better than non-co-operation and neutrality doesn’t mean you don’t cooperate with neighbours.

On the back of the recent Russian State TV simulation of a nuclear attack obliterating its target, Britain, and Ireland along with it, the ambassador was asked whether Russia, or China, respect neutrality in the way Ireland would hope and expect it would be?

“No. The answer is no,” Mr Guérend said.

He said this was true in the First World War and again in the Second World War, when the neutrality of some states was ignored by aggressors.

“It was not the case 100 years ago and it will certainly not be the case this time,” he said.

"There’s so many breaches of international law by Russia, that something like neutrality would not withstand one second if the intention is to harm a neutral country.” 

Did that mean Ireland should follow other neutral or non-aligned countries, such as Finland and Sweden, and join Nato?

We believe that that’s really for each and every member state to decide based on a sovereign decision, like now Sweden and Finland are doing.

“That’s not at all for any of us and certainly not for France to decide or encourage or discourage.” 

He said that, within the EU, the focus is on the Strategic Compass.

“What [the compass says] is that Europe member states should raise standards and raise their level of awareness and a level of capacity to defend [EU] values and interest, but it's for each and every country to decide which way is the best to achieve this," he said.

Transatlantic cables

On the threat to Europe posed by any interference with undersea transatlantic cables, many of which pass through or near Irish-controlled waters, Mr Guérend said there were countries and actors able to cut or damage, or indeed tap, the cables.

“It’s critical for us on this side of the Atlantic and certainly on the other side of the Atlantic to make sure the integrity of these cables are maintained —it’s absolutely crucial," he said.

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