The European Union has been accused of “an almost Trumpian act” after it threatened to effectively create a hard border in Ireland as part of its export controls on coronavirus vaccines.
The bloc had moved to trigger Article 16 of Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol to prevent Northern Ireland from being used as a back door to move coronavirus vaccines from the union into the rest of the UK.
But late on Friday night it backtracked on its decision and said it was “not triggering the safeguard clause” to ensure the Northern Ireland Protocol is “unaffected”.
Former Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith described the move as an “almost Trumpian act” that had been taken without “anywhere near the understanding of the Good Friday Agreement”.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday, he said: “Years have been spent trying to ensure goods will flow freely and there will be no hard border and last night the EU pulled the emergency cord without following any of the process that are in the protocol if one side wants to suspend it.
“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.
“The relationships are complex, we need to spend much, much more time, much, much more money and much, much more resources in getting this relationship right. The EU cocked up big time last night but we all need to work in the interests of preserving Northern Ireland.
“It is not just a backdoor for goods going to Britain, it is a very sensitive place and we have a duty of care between the EU and the UK to preserve no hard border and stability in Northern Ireland.”
His comments followed those by Stormont first minister Arlene Foster, who branded the initial move an “incredible act of hostility” and urged Boris Johnson to replace the protocol.
Also speaking on the programme, Foster said Brussels’ threat on Friday was “absolutely disgraceful”. “I have to say the Prime Minister now needs to act very quickly to deal with the real trade flows that are being disrupted between Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” she added.
“We’ve been asking the PM to deal with the flow problems and, indeed since January 1, we’ve been trying to manage along with the Government the many, many difficulties that have arisen between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and there are actions he could take immediately,” she said.
“There is great unrest and great tension within the community here in Northern Ireland so this protocol that was meant to bring about peace and harmony in Northern Ireland is doing quite the reverse.
“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.”
On Friday, Boris Johnson warned European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen of his “grave concerns” over Brussels’ move. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby weighed in, criticising the EU for undercutting its own ethics.
The move to impinge on the protocol, which blindsided both the UK and Ireland, came amid a deepening row over the allocation of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine after the company announced delays to its EU operations.
After Irish premier Micheal Martin and the Johnson both held calls with von der Leyen, the commission issued a statement to back down on Article 16, a move it earlier justified over a lack of vaccine supplies.
In a statement late on Friday night, the European Commission said: “To tackle the current lack of transparency of vaccine exports outside the EU, the Commission is putting in place a measure requiring that such exports are subject to an authorisation by member states.
“In the process of finalisation of this measure, the Commission will ensure that the Ireland-Northern Ireland Protocol is unaffected. The Commission is not triggering the safeguard clause.”
But it continued to threaten 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.
“In the process of finalising the document, the commission will also be fine-tuning the decision-making process under the implementing regulation.”
The Northern Ireland Protocol, which is part of the Brexit withdrawal deal, normally allows for free movement of goods from the EU into Northern Ireland.
Under the terms of the protocol, goods should be able to move freely between the EU and Northern Ireland as the region remains in the single market for goods and still operates under EU customs rules.