Brussels has pulled out of an incendiary plan that would have created border restrictions between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as part of its efforts to crack down on vaccine exports from the EU.
Politicians in Dublin, London and Belfast had expressed alarm over the European Commission’s decision to trigger a waiver mechanism in the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Brexit Treaty – just weeks after the UK left of the single market.
In a statement late Friday night, the European Commission said it would now ensure that the protocol is “not affected” by its proposed vaccine export controls that are part of his efforts to deal with a shortage of shots in the block.
Previously, the export proposals had been pulled from the commission’s website just hours after their publication, as senior officials in Dublin, London and Brussels conducted frenzied diplomacy over the deal.
The face of volte is an acute embarrassment for the committee and its chairman Ursula von der Leyen. It follows a week of agitation for Brussels, as it battles a severe supply squeeze in the deployment of vaccines in the EU and fights AstraZeneca for a shortfall in the company’s vaccine deliveries.
The commission had announced action at the Irish border as part of tighter control of vaccine exports allowing EU member states to block vaccine sales to countries like the UK, US United and Japan.
But the Northern Ireland arrangements immediately sparked a wave of anxiety across the political spectrum in the UK and Ireland.
Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin raised the issue directly with Ms von der Leyen. Boris Johnson, British Prime Minister, spoke with the two leaders and expressed to Mrs von der Leyen his “serious concerns”, said the British government.
Michael Gove, UK Cabinet Office Minister, called on committee deputy Maros Sefcovic to voice concern over the EU’s lack of notification, saying the UK “is considering its next steps”.
Arlene Foster, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, condemned the commission’s initial decision as an “act of incredible hostility”. Brussels “at the first opportunity” placed a hard border between the region and the Republic of Ireland on a vaccine supply chain, she said.
Arancha Gonzales, Spain’s Foreign Minister, called the initial attempt to use the restrictions in this way “accident”. “The accident has been repaired,” she told the BBC Newsnight.
In its statement on Friday, the commission said it would release a revised version of the regulations on Saturday morning.
The rules will require that exports of vaccines be subject to authorization by member states. “If the transits of vaccines and active substances to third countries are abused to circumvent the effects of the authorization system, the EU will consider using all the instruments at its disposal”, warned the committee.
The new EU export rules are not explicitly targeting the UK, but the language used echoes concerns from Brussels that vaccines made in the European bloc have been shipped across the Channel – and could be again.
The initial version of the regulation refers to shortfalls in delivery in the EU by “some vaccine manufacturers” – an apparent reference to the dispute between AstraZeneca and the commission, where officials questioned whether any supplies had been sent to the UK.
EU wants AstraZeneca to divert production from its UK factories to make up for a shortfall in deliveries expected in the bloc and on Friday published details of his contract with the UK based company.
But Mr Johnson remains convinced the UK contract with AstraZeneca – signed last June, three months before the deal with the EU – is watertight and will ensure that British production will be used to fulfill the company’s promise to deliver 100 million doses.
AstraZeneca’s jab was cleared for use in the EU by the OR’s medical regulator on Friday.
The European Medicines Agency said it has supported the Oxford / AstraZeneca jab for everyone aged 18 and over, even as Germany and France have expressed concerns about its effectiveness on people aged 65 and over.
Hours before the EMA decision, French President Emmanuel Macron said: “Today everything suggests that [the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine] is almost ineffective for those over 65, and some say over 60. “
France tightened its coronavirus restrictions on Friday, closing its borders to arrivals from outside the EU from Sunday except for “essential reasons” and closing shopping malls from the same day without imposing a new lockdown full country.
Additional reporting by Victor Mallet in Paris