The European Union abruptly canceled plans to use emergency Brexit measures to prevent COVID-19 vaccine shipments from crossing the Irish border into the UK, after sending shock waves through the Northern Ireland, London and Dublin.
In a steep escalation in the EU’s fight to secure vaccine supplies, Brussels had said it would trigger clauses in the Northern Irish protocol to prevent vaccines from crossing the open border between member Ireland. EU and the British province.
Following an uproar in London, Belfast and Dublin, the EU issued a statement just before midnight saying it would ensure the Northern Ireland protocol, designed to keep the border open, would not be affected.
He warned, however, that if vaccines and active substances were to move to third countries and out of the bloc, he would use “all the instruments at his disposal”.
Ireland said the EU’s change of mind was welcome, but lessons should be learned.
“The protocol is not something to be falsified lightly, it is an essential, hard-won compromise that protects peace and trade for many,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said on Twitter.
The EU’s original plan was to prevent the open border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland from serving as a back door for vaccine supplies to the UK.
The public overthrow followed a series of frantic calls as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen of his “serious concerns”, while Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said is being held in talks with both Johnson and the EU chief to find a solution.
Northern Irish trade unionists see the EU’s initial plan as an act of hostility.
In a social media post on Friday, von der Leyen said she spoke to Johnson: “We have agreed on the principle that there should be no restrictions on the export of vaccines. by companies where they fulfill contractual responsibilities. “
The fastest mass vaccination campaign in history stokes tensions across the world as major powers buy up doses in bulk, as poorer countries try to navigate a financial and diplomatic minefield to collect the remaining supplies.
The EU, whose member states lag far behind Israel, the UK and the US in vaccine deployment, scrambles to stock up as major Western drugmakers slow deliveries to the bloc in due to production problems.
Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca has come under fire after saying last week it would fail to deliver promised vaccines to the EU by March due to production issues in Belgium.
This angered Brussels, who demanded to know why the company could not divert supplies from its UK sites, which produced millions of snaps for UK citizens.
The UK has its own national supply chain for AstraZeneca, including its deployment in Northern Ireland, but it imports Pfizer’s vaccine from a factory in Belgium.
The European Commission has agreed to a broader plan to control the bloc’s vaccine exports, including to the UK, arguing it must do so to secure its own supplies.
But the EU’s failed attempt to use the Northern Ireland protocol has sparked anger in the province.
Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister Arlene Foster called it “an act of incredible hostility”.
Preserving the delicate peace in Northern Ireland without allowing the UK to turn away from EU markets across the UK-Ireland land border (499 km) was one of the most difficult questions Brexit divorce negotiations.