United: Anger at EU’s move to invoke Brexit clause on Irish border, EU backtrack

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EU invoked Article 16. Image Getty Images

Dublin, Belfast and London have blasted Brussels over Brexit deal override in latest vaccine fight

The European Commission triggered measures to control vaccine exports after sparking political uproar with its plans to block the supply of Covid-19 vaccinations into Northern Ireland.

It activated the Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol that allows parts of the special arrangement allowing free movement of products from the EU to Northern Ireland to be suspended.

The move, which would have frustrated any efforts to use Northern Ireland as a back door to bring vaccines from the EU into the UK, provoked strong responses from Dublin, Belfast and London.

The EU’s decision was condemned on both sides of the Irish border, amid frantic talks including a call between the UK and Ireland to avert a full scale crisis.

Reports on Friday night have indicated the move was swiftly overturned amid widespread anger.

Brussels triggered Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which allows one side to unilaterally override the deal in certain circumstances. The move is explosive because it is anathema to the Good Friday Agreement, aimed at securing peace on the island of Ireland, and could trigger a retaliatory move from the U.K.

Late Friday night a No 10 spokesperson had said the UK was “urgently seeking an explanation from the European commission” about the move. Later the spokesman said Boris Johnson and Ireland’s taoiseach, Micheál Martin, had held a “constructive discussion” about the events.

“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 spokesperson said, adding that the UK has “reiterated the importance of preserving the benefits of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement”.

Martin spoke directly to the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, on Friday evening to express what sources described as “deep unhappiness” with the triggering of article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol.

The article was agreed in the original withdrawal agreement and gives both sides the power to unilaterally introduce checks on goods if not doing so could result in “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.

It is designed as a “last resort” but has been used as an emergency brake on the UK government using Northern Ireland as a back door route to secure EU supplies of the Covid vaccine in the event of a blockade.

The move came amid a deepening row over the allocation of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine after the company announced delays to its EU operations.

Irish government sources told reporters the decision was “completely unnecessary” and had “explosive political implications”.

Arlene Foster, Stormont’s first minister, branded the decision to use article 16 to stop the unfettered flow of inoculations from the EU into the region an “incredible act of hostility”. She added it was a “despicable” move that would create the hard border on the island of Ireland that the Northern Ireland protocol was designed to prevent.

Colum Eastwood, the Social Democratic and Labour party leader, called the move “a grave error”.

The European Commission said the move was “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”.

It is believed the decision was made without consultation with either the UK or Ireland government.

One EU diplomat said they were astounded by the move and hoped it could be revoked within the next 24 hours. “Sometimes the quickest way to recover is to admit your mistakes,” they said.

One senior EU diplomatic source said: “This is an extraordinary misjudgement and shows a complete misunderstanding of the protocol and article 16, which is meant to be used as a last resort. There was no discussion about this and came like a shot out of the blue.”

Louise Haigh, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, said the EU’s move was “deeply destabilising and undermines the huge efforts being made to make the protocol work”.

Foster 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.”

Confirmation on EU backtrack

The EU has now backtracked on its decision to temporarily override part of the Brexit deal amid an ongoing row over Covid vaccine supplies.

In a statement, the EU Commission said it would ensure the Northern Ireland Protocol is “unaffected”.

Boris Johnson had called on the bloc to “urgently clarify its intentions” over the move.

The EU had said it would trigger a clause to introduce export controls on vaccines to Northern Ireland.

Under the Brexit deal, all products should be exported from the EU to NI without checks.

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.

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