January 29, 2021
By Andy Bruce, Kate Holton and Marine Strauss
LONDON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union on Friday abruptly reversed course on a plan to use emergency Brexit measures to restrict exports of COVID-19 vaccines through the Irish border to the United Kingdom after it sent shockwaves through Northern Ireland, London and Dublin.
In a steep escalation of the EU’s fight to secure vaccine supplies, Brussels had said it would trigger clauses in the Northern Irish Protocol to prevent shots moving across the open border between EU-member Ireland and the British-run province.
Following an outcry in London, Belfast and Dublin, the EU published a statement just before midnight saying it would ensure that the Northern Ireland Protocol, designed to keep the border open, would not be affected.
It warned, however, that should vaccines and active substances move toward third countries and out of the bloc, it would use “all the instruments at its disposal”.
The very public reversal followed a round of frantic calls as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen of his “grave concerns” while Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin spoke to both Johnson and the EU chief to find a solution.
Northern Irish unionists cast the move as an act of hostility.
The swiftest mass vaccination drive in history is stoking tensions across the world as big powers buy up doses in bulk and poorer nations try to navigate a financial and diplomatic minefield to collect whatever supplies are left.
The EU, whose member states are far behind Israel, Britain and the United States in rolling out vaccines, is scrambling to get supplies just as the West’s biggest drugmakers slow deliveries to the bloc because of production problems.
The European Commission has agreed a broader plan to control exports of vaccines from the bloc, including to Britain, arguing it needed to do so to ensure its own supplies.
But the EU’s action in Northern Ireland triggered anger.
Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster described as “an incredible act of hostility” the decision by the EU to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Irish Protocol, which allows Britain or the EU to take unilateral action if there is an unexpected negative effect arising from the agreement.
“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,” Foster said.
(Reporting by Kate Holton, Andy Bruce and William James; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Daniel Wallis and Grant McCool)