The European Union has received widespread condemnation of its plan to override part of the Brexit deal on Northern Ireland as part of its export controls on coronavirus vaccines.
The bloc was forced to perform an embarrassing U-turn late on Friday night and withdraw plans to effectively create a hard border in Ireland.
It comes amid a deepening bitter row between the EU and the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.
AstraZeneca – which developed and manufactures the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine – has not been able to make enough jabs in time to fulfil the contracts it signed with the EU.
The pharmaceutical company said a “production glitch” at a factory in Belgium means initial deliveries to the union would fall short.
This issue resulted in the fact that “we are basically two months behind where we want to be” in terms of supplying the EU with vaccines, said AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot.
AstraZeneca manufactures the jabs in four different factories: two are in the UK and two are in the EU. The British government has said it expects those manufactured in the UK to be administered in the UK – but the EU disagrees.
With the UK’s vaccine rollout outstripping European countries, the EU suggested doses produced in Britain should be directed elsewhere to make up the shortfall.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called for an explanation from AstraZeneca for the shortfalls in the delivery of vaccines, insisting the supply orders are “binding” and “the contract is crystal clear”.
Where does Northern Ireland come in?
On Friday, the European Union said it would invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to stop the country being used as a back door to move coronavirus vaccines from the bloc into the UK.
The NI Protocol, which is part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, is designed to allow the free movement of goods from the EU into Northern Ireland, preventing the need for a hard border on the island of 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.
But triggering Article 16 would have meant Northern Ireland was considered an export territory for the purposes of vaccine sent from the EU/the Republic of Ireland, temporarily placing export controls on the movement of vaccines.
How was the EU’s move received?
The move to impinge on the protocol left the UK, Northern Ireland and Ireland blindsided.
Stormont first minister Arlene Foster branding the initial move an “incredible act of hostility”, adding: “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.”
Boris Johnson warned von der Leyen of his “grave concerns” over Brussels’ move, and even the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby weighed in, criticising the EU for undercutting its own ethics.
Foster has called on Johnson to replace the Northern Ireland Protocol, reiterating calls to invoke Article 16 over food shortages being faced in her nation because of Brexit.
Warning of “great unrest and great tension” in the region, she added: “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.”
Why did it U-turn on its decision?
Late on Friday night, the EU said it would be “not triggering the safeguard clause” to ensure the Northern Ireland Protocol is “unaffected”.
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.”
Have things settled down now?
Not quite. Despite its statement on Friday the commission has 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. The UK is scheduled to get 3.5 million doses of the jab over the next three weeks.
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.
Officials have insisted the measure is not an export ban and that the move is intended to ensure member nations receive doses they bought from vaccine producers.
What has AstraZeneca said?
In an interview with Italy’s la Repubblica newspaper, AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot had said the contract only committed to meet the EU’s demands to its “best effort”.
He said the EU’s deliveries were delayed in part because the bloc signed its contract later than the UK, and therefore EU manufacturing facilities were still catching up.
AstraZeneca and its partner Oxford University signed a deal with the UK Government for 100 million doses three months before the EU deal for 400 million doses was agreed, according to Mr Soriot.
The company has 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.
What has the EU said?
Speaking on BBC Newsnight, Spanish foreign minister Arancha Gonzalez-Laya said the EU’s triggering of the article was “an accident”, while an EU source told PA news agency the move had been a “misjudgment”.
Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney said “lessons should be learned” and warned the Article 16 protocol “is not something to be tampered with lightly, it’s an essential, hard-won compromise, protecting peace and trade for many”.
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 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.
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.
What has the UK said?
In a statement, Downing Street said: “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.”
Health secretary Matt Hancock has spoken to his counterpart in Northern Ireland, Robin Swann, over the supply of coronavirus vaccines after the EU imposed export controls.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The health secretary and minister of health for Northern Ireland had a constructive discussion on the supply of Covid-19 vaccines.”