The European Union has performed an embarrassing U-turn after widespread condemnation of its move to effectively crate a hard border in Ireland as part of its export controls on coronavirus vaccines.
The bloc had moved to prevent Northern Ireland from being used as a back door to move coronavirus vaccines from the union into the rest of the UK as the row over precious supplies of the jab deepened.
The EU triggered Article 16 of Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol to stop unfettered flow of inoculations from the EU into the region as it announced export controls on some Covid-19 vaccines.
But it later said it is “not triggering the safeguard clause” to ensure the Northern Ireland Protocol is “unaffected”. It followed Stormont first minister Arlene Foster branding the initial move an “incredible act of hostility”, while Boris Johnson had warned European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen of his “grave concerns” over Brussels’ move. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby weighed in, critcising 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.”
Regardless of the protocol U-turn, preventing vaccines made within the EU from being exported could hinder the UK’s access to further supplies, particularly to the Belgian-made Pfizer jab.
But there appeared to be a pact when von der Leyen said she had held “constructive talks” with 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.”
The protocol, with 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. The EU has triggered Article 16 of the protocol to temporarily place export controls on this movement in respect of vaccines.
The move to activate Article 16 would have frustrated any effort to use Northern Ireland as a back door to bring vaccines into Great Britain.
Foster, the DUP leader, had said: “By triggering Article 16 in this manner, the European Union has once again shown it is prepared to use Northern Ireland when it suits their interests but in the most despicable manner – over the provision of a vaccine which is designed to save lives.
“At the first opportunity, the EU has placed a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland over the supply chain of the coronavirus vaccine.”
The regulation would have meant Northern Ireland was considered an export territory for the purposes of vaccine sent from the EU/the Republic of Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s vaccines arrive from the rest of the UK at present so those will be unaffected.
A No 10 spokesman had said: “The UK government is urgently seeking an explanation from the European Commission about the statements issued by the EU today and assurances as to its intentions.
“The UK has legally-binding agreements with vaccine suppliers and it would not expect the EU, as a friend and ally, to do anything to disrupt the fulfilment of these contracts.
“The UK government has reiterated the importance of preserving the benefits of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the commitments that have been made to the two communities.”
In the controversial earlier statement, the European Commission said: “Exports of goods from Northern Ireland to other parts of the United Kingdom cannot be restricted by Union law unless this is strictly required by international obligations of the Union.
“Therefore, movements of goods covered by this regulation between the Union and Northern Ireland should be treated as exports.
“Whilst quantitative restrictions on exports are prohibited between the Union and Northern Ireland, in accordance with Article 5 (5) of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, this is justified as a safeguard measure pursuant to Article 16 of that Protocol in order to avert serious societal difficulties due to a lack of supply threatening to disturb the orderly implementation of the vaccination campaigns in the member states.”
Even the Church of England’s spiritual leader critcised the EU, arguing it was undercutting its own ethics.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said on Twitter on Friday: “The European Union was originally inspired by Christian social teaching – at the heart of which is solidarity.
“Seeking to control the export of vaccines undercuts the EU’s basic ethics. They need to work together with others.”
The row began when Oxford University vaccine partner AstraZeneca said initial deliveries to the EU would fall short because of a production glitch – said to be at a hub in Belgium – and it would not be able to meet its supply targets for the first three months of this year.
The EU is frustrated at supply shortages and has demanded AstraZeneca doses be sent from British plants to make up for a shortfall.
But the UK government has insisted no doses earmarked for Brits will be sent elsewhere.
The Anglo-Swedish company announced initial deliveries in the EU would total approximately 31m doses, rather than the anticipated 80m in the first quarter of the year.
With the speed of the UK’s vaccine rollout outstripping other European countries, the EU has suggested too many doses produced in Europe are being directed elsewhere – though it is not pointing the finger at Britain.
The “vaccine export transparency mechanism” will be used until the end of March to control vaccine shipments to non-EU countries and to ensure that any exporting company based in the EU first submits its plans to national authorities.
Meanwhile, AstraZeneca published a redacted version of its contract with the EU, which the bloc said was important for “accountability”.
The contract mentions that the firm would make “best reasonable efforts” to use European plants, including two in the UK, as production sites for vaccines destined for the EU.
Earlier on Friday the prime minister’s official spokesperson, asked about the prospect of a block on vaccines heading to Britain, said the government remained confident in its vaccine supply, adding: “EU policy is a matter for them.”