EU vaccine export row: Bloc backtracks on controls for NI
The EU has reversed its decision to temporarily override part of the Brexit deal amid an ongoing row over Covid vaccine supplies in the bloc.
The move would have seen checks at the border of Ireland and Northern Ireland to prevent shipments entering the UK.
But the European Commission later said it will ensure the Northern Ireland Protocol is “unaffected”.
Boris Johnson had expressed “grave concerns” about the plan in a phone call with the commission’s president.
President Ursula von der Leyen later tweeted to say she had held “constructive talks” with the prime minister.
She said they had “agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities”.
The EC proposals had also sparked concern from Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster and Irish prime minister Micheál Martin.
Mr Martin welcomed the EU’s reversal, describing it as a “positive development given the many challenges we face in tackling Covid-19”.
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The Brexit deal guarantees an open border between the EU and Northern Ireland, with no controls on exported products.
However, the EU had announced it would trigger a clause to introduce the export controls on vaccines to Northern Ireland.
On Friday, the bloc invoked Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol in a bid to prevent the region becoming a backdoor for EU vaccines to be sent to the wider UK. The EU previously said its actions were “justified” to avert problems caused by a lack of supply.
It was not thought that the move would directly disadvantage Northern Ireland, which gets its vaccine supplies through the UK procurement system.
Despite backtracking on Northern Ireland, the EU is still introducing new controls giving member states the power to block exports of the coronavirus vaccine to countries including the UK – should they want to.
It was the latest development in a deepening dispute over the vaccine producer AstraZeneca’s delivery commitments to the EU.
The bloc agreed to buy up to 400m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine last year, and on Friday the EU’s drugs regulator approved the vaccine’s use for all adults.
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But the firm said that due to problems at one of its EU factories, supplies would be reduced by about 60% in the first quarter of 2021.
In a statement released on Friday evening, a No 10 spokesman said Mr Johnson had spoken to Mrs von der Leyen and expressed his “grave concerns” about the “potential impact” of the EU’s actions on vaccine exports, urging it to “urgently clarify its intentions”.
“Mistake,” “misjudgement,” “blunder.”
These are just some of words EU insiders have been using privately to describe the European Commission’s initial decision on Friday to suspend areas of the Brexit deal dealing with Northern Ireland, a part of its Covid vaccine row.
Although it then U-turned on those plans, critics say the damage was already done.
Brussels previously lectured the UK government about respecting the Irish Protocol – which was painfully and carefully drafted during Brexit negotiations.
Now the EU seemed quick to undermine the agreement.
Member state Ireland felt stung that it hadn’t been consulted. This all adds to the impression of chaos surrounding the EU’s vaccine rollout.
Brussels was already under fire from a growing number of EU countries for having been slow to sign vaccine contracts with pharmaceutical companies.
This “mishap” over the Irish Protocol as Spain’s Foreign Minister called it, hasn’t exactly helped the Commission’s reputation.
A later statement from the European Commission said it was “not triggering the safeguard clause” of the Brexit deal, and the Northern Ireland Protocol would remain “unaffected”.
The Commission added that in order to tackle “the current lack of transparency” over vaccine exports outside the EU, it would be introducing a measure requiring that all such exports “are subject to an authorisation” by member states.
The statement warned that the EU would “consider using all the instruments at its disposal” should vaccine supplies “toward third countries be abused to circumvent the effects of the authorisation system”.
The EU’s original move was criticised by a string of politicians, with Northern Ireland’s first minister describing it as “an incredible act of hostility” that places a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Cabinet minister Michael Gove told his opposite number on the EU-UK Joint Committee, Maros Sefcovic earlier that the UK was concerned by the “lack of notification from the EU about its actions in relation to the NI protocol”.
In a phone call earlier with the Irish Taoiseach Mr Martin on Friday evening, Mr Johnson “set out his concerns” about the move and “what these actions may mean for the two communities in Northern Ireland”, according to a No 10 spokesperson.
The PM is also said to have “stressed the UK’s enduring commitment” to the Good Friday agreement and called on the EU to “urgently clarify its intentions and what steps it plans to take to ensure its own commitments with regards to Northern Ireland are fully honoured”.
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Meanwhile, in an interview with the Times, Michel Barnier, who was the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said he was calling for “cooperation” between the EU and the UK over the vaccine supplies across Europe.
He said the world was facing an “extraordinarily serious crisis” which he argued must be faced with “responsibility” rather than the “spirit oneupmanship or unhealthy competition”.
He added: “I recommend preserving the spirit of co-operation between us.”
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Published at Sat, 30 Jan 2021 01:35:00 +0000