The EU Avoided A Massive Row With The UK After Ditching An Explosive Plan To Limit Vaccine Exports to Northern Ireland
The European Union stepped back from the brink of an enormous diplomatic row on Friday night after deciding not to override the Northern Ireland Protocol agreed with Boris Johnson’s government by imposing controls on exports of the coronavirus vaccine to the UK.
Virtually all sides of the British political spectrum reacted furiously to reports yesterday that the European Commission was set to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed as part of the Brexit withdrawal deal, in order to potentially stop the free flow of vaccine supplies from the continent to the UK via Northern Ireland.
The plan effectively would have erected a contentious border on the island of Ireland, which is what both Brussels and UK worked hard to avoid in years of Brexit negotiations, and led to a major spat with the UK as EU member states struggle to get hold of supplies of coronavirus vaccines.
However, the European Commission late last night in a statement said that it was “not triggering the safeguard clause,” and that instead it was introducing a measure requiring member states to authorize vaccine exports to non-EU countries.
This, in theory, means that EU member states could still decide to block exports of vaccines to third countries like the UK, if they so wished - though it would be politically toxic.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she had “constructive talks” with Prime Minister Johnson before the bloc announced that it would not be invoking Article 16.
A spokesperson for the prime minister said that Johnson in his conversation with von der Leyen “expressed his grave concerns about the potential impact” overriding the Protocol could have.
Under the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, goods move freely and unfettered between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, despite the former no longer being in the EU. That's because Northern Ireland continues to follow the rules of the EU's single market and customs union.
The question of how to preserve the status quo on the island of Ireland was at the heart of years of Brexit talks due to sensitivities around the Good Friday Agreement and a potential hard border.
News broke yesterday afternoon that the EU was set to override the Protocol designed for Northern Ireland, so it could potentially stop vaccines developed on the continent from reaching the UK.
The EU is under huge pressure to ramp up its vaccine rollout amid an extraordinary row with AstraZeneca over a reduction in its supplies of the vaccine developed with Oxford University. Some EU member states have had to pause jabs due to vaccines shortages.
The reports sent shockwaves across the English Channel, with all major political parties in the UK – including the staunchly Unionist DUP and Irish nationalist Sin Feinn – uniting to condemn the move.
Louise Haigh, the Labour Party’s Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, said it would be “deeply destabilizing” and “do nothing to aid the stability in Northern Ireland which the Protocol was designed to preserve”.
In a sign that the EU’s move upset the government in Dublin, Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs, Simon Coveney, said after the bloc’s announcement that “lessons should be learned" from the episode.
Michel Barnier, who served as the EU’s chief negotiator in Brexit negotiations with the UK, was not involved in the bloc’s decision-making on Friday night but was urging his colleagues to not take the explosive step of invoking Article 16 of the Protocol, The Times reported.