EU 'admits mistake' following U-turn on Northern Ireland vaccine controls

30 January 2021, 10:43 | Updated: 30 January 2021, 22:23

By Maddie Goodfellow

The EU has recognised "it made a mistake" after its short-lived move to override part of the Brexit deal on Northern Ireland over export controls on coronavirus vaccines.

On Friday, the EU made a U-turn and said it will not override part of the Brexit deal after widespread condemnation of its move to trigger Article 16 as part of its export controls on coronavirus vaccines.

The EU backtracked on the move after condemnation from London, Dublin and Belfast, with leaders all blindsided by the decision to trigger Article 16 of the protocol as the European bloc is embroiled in a row with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca over shortfalls in the delivery of jabs.

Speaking to reporters on Saturday, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said the bloc has acknowledged it made a mistake and agreed a "reset" on relations is needed.

He said: "I think the European Union recognises that they made a mistake in triggering Article 16 which would've meant the reimposition of a border on the island of Ireland.

"But now the European Union has stepped back.

"I've spoken to the European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic about this and we both agreed that we need a reset, that we need to put the people of Northern Ireland first."

Read more: Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid vaccine approved across EU for all adults

Boris Johnson was urged by the region's First Minister Arlene Foster on Saturday to replace the Northern Ireland Protocol after Brussels invoked a clause to prevent shipments of jabs entering the UK, in an "incredible act of hostility".

The EU has said it is "not triggering the safeguard clause" to ensure the Northern Ireland Protocol is "unaffected" after widespread condemnation of its move as part of its export controls on coronavirus vaccines.

Hours earlier, the EU had moved to prevent Northern Ireland from being used as a back door to funnel coronavirus vaccine from the bloc into the rest of the UK.

A statement from 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.

"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.

Read more: What is the difference between the five Covid-19 vaccines?

"In the process of finalising the document, the commission will also be fine-tuning the decision-making process under the implementing regulation."

The protocol, with is part of the Brexit withdrawal deal, normally allows for free movement of goods from the EU into Northern 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.

There is currently a grace period of a year on checks on medicines moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland under the post-Brexit arrangements.

Friday's move, which came amid a deepening row with AstraZeneca over its supply contract with the EU, was part of a wider bid to control exports of vaccines from the bloc.

Irish premier Micheal Martin welcomed the decision not to invoke Article 16.

He tweeted: "Welcome decision by the European Commission tonight not to invoke the safeguard clause of the Ireland / Northern Ireland Protocol following constructive discussions with @vonderleyen

"This is a positive development given the many challenges we face in tackling COVID-19."

Louise Haigh, Labour's shadow secretary for Northern Ireland, said the EU reversing its decision was the "right" move.

She said: "This profound misjudgement has caused unnecessary damage and set back efforts to make the Protocol work.

"The European Union - and all those interested in stability in Northern Ireland - now have a responsibility to redouble their efforts to make the Protocol work."

Ms Foster spoke with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove about the issue on Friday evening, and called for a "robust response" from the UK Government.

Mrs 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."

The regulation means Northern Ireland will be considered an export territory for the purposes of vaccine sent from the EU/the Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland's vaccines arrive from the rest of the UK at present so those will be unaffected.

The DUP leader added: "With the European Union using Article 16 in such an aggressive and most shameful way, it is now time for our Government to step up.

"I will be urging the Prime Minister to act and use robust measures including Article 16 to advance the interests of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom."

The DUP has previously pressed the British Government to invoke the Article 16 mechanism because of disruption to the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster spoke to his counterpart on the UK-EU joint committee on Friday, No 10 said.

In a statement, a spokesman said: "CDL Michael Gove just spoke to European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic to express the UK's concern over a lack of notification from the EU about its actions in relation to the NI protocol.

"CDL said the UK would now be carefully considering next steps."

The Oxford-developed jab was authorised for use in adults throughout the European Union on Friday, making it the third vaccine to be given the green light following ones made by Pfizer and Moderna.

Following the news, EC President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted: "We have just authorised the AstraZeneca vaccine on the EU market following a positive assessment by @EMA_News.

"I expect the company to deliver the 400 million doses as agreed. We will keep on doing all we can to secure vaccines for Europeans, our neighbours & partners worldwide."

The EMA licensed the jab for use in over-18s, though concerns were raised earlier in the week that insufficient data exists to prove its efficacy in older people.

Europe's vaccine regulator said in a statement: "EMA has recommended granting a conditional marketing authorisation for Covid-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca to prevent coronavirus disease 2019 in people from 18 years of age.

"This is the third Covid-19 vaccine that EMA has recommended for authorisation."