Criticism of the European Union is mounting after its short-lived move to override part of the Brexit deal on Northern Ireland over export controls on coronavirus vaccines.
Boris Johnson was urged by the region’s First Minister Arlene Foster on Saturday to replace the Northern Ireland Protocol after Brussels invoked a clause to prevent shipments of jabs entering the UK, in an “incredible act of hostility”.
The EU backtracked on the move after condemnation from London, Dublin and Belfast, with leaders all blindsided by the decision to trigger Article 16 of the protocol as the European bloc is embroiled in a row with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca over shortfalls in the delivery of jabs.
An EU source told the PA news agency the move had been a “misjudgment”, as the European Commission backtracked to say it is “not triggering the safeguard clause” to ensure the protocol is “unaffected”.
Despite criticism from the World Health Organisation, the EU is pushing ahead with imposing controls on vaccines manufactured within member states, which could hinder the UK’s access to further supplies, particularly to the Belgian-made Pfizer jab.
The U-turn on Northern Ireland late on Friday night came after the Prime Minister expressed his “grave concern” to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who also faced pressure from Irish premier Micheal Martin.
The EU chief said she had agreed a “satisfactory way to introduce an export authorisation mechanism” for vaccines with Mr Martin, who was said to be furious about the initial move.
Ms von der Leyen said she had held “constructive talks” with Mr Johnson, adding: “We agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities.”
But attempts to soothe tensions did little to stem the flow of criticism, with Julian Smith, a Conservative MP and former Northern Ireland secretary, saying the “EU cocked up big time” in risking a hard border returning to the island of Ireland.
“And they did that, in my view, without anywhere near the understanding of the Good Friday Agreement, of the sensitivity of the situation in Northern Ireland, and it was an almost Trumpian act,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
DUP leader Ms Foster said the move was “absolutely disgraceful” and reiterated calls for the Prime Minister to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol over food shortages being faced in her nation because of Brexit.
She warned of “great unrest and great tension” in the region and urged Mr Johnson to tear up and replace the protocol, which is part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and is designed to allow the free movement of goods from the EU into Northern Ireland and prevent a hard border.
“The protocol is unworkable, let’s be very clear about that, and we need to see it replaced because otherwise there is going to be real difficulties here in Northern Ireland,” she said.
Pressed whether that would be in breach of an international treaty, she told Today: “Well it didn’t seem to bother the European Union yesterday when they breached the treaty in terms of their embarrassment around their vaccine procurement.”
Spanish foreign minister Arancha Gonzalez-Laya told BBC Newsnight the EU’s triggering of the article was “an accident”.
But the bloc continued to warn of further action, saying: “Should transits of vaccines and active substances toward third countries be abused to circumvent the effects of the authorisation system, the EU will consider using all the instruments at its disposal.”
EU Com statement tonight confirming NI Protocol Art 16, safeguard clause, will not be triggered.— Simon Coveney (@simoncoveney) January 29, 2021
Welcome news, but lessons should be learned; the Protocol is not something to be tampered with lightly, itâs an essential, hard won compromise, protecting peace & trade for many. pic.twitter.com/QLKpfhR9Yt
Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney said “lessons should be learned” and warned the protocol “is not something to be tampered with lightly, it’s an essential, hard-won compromise, protecting peace and trade for many”.
The EU had sought to justify the measure as being needed to prevent Northern Ireland being used as a back door to move coronavirus vaccines from the bloc into the UK, “due to a lack of supply threatening to disturb the orderly implementation of the vaccination campaigns in the member states”.
Regardless of the U-turn, French President Emmanuel Macron backed the EU seeking to “control” vaccine exports as he raised questions about a lack of doses being delivered by Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca.
“It should be controlled because there is questionable behaviour and we will be receiving fewer deliveries that do not honour the contractual engagements agreed,” he said in an interview with media, including the Guardian.
Brussels has also demanded doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured in British plants to solve its supply shortage issues, as member states have been forced to pause or delay their rollouts.