LONDON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union on Friday sought to restrict exports of COVID-19 vaccines through the Irish border to the United Kingdom by invoking emergency clauses in the Brexit divorce deal, sending shockwaves through both Ireland and Northern Ireland.
In a steep escalation of the EU’s fight to secure vaccine supplies, the EU triggered clauses in the Northern Irish Protocol that would limit the supply of vaccines through the Irish border to the United Kingdom.
Northern Irish unionists cast the move as an act of hostility while Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin sought urgent clarification from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
As Britain considered its response, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed his concern and said the EU had to clarify its intentions to ensure it honoured its commitments to Northern Ireland.
“The PM set out his concerns about the EU’s use of Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol and what these actions may mean for the two communities in Northern Ireland,” a spokesman for Johnson said in a statement.
Johnson told Martin that the EU “must urgently clarify its intentions and what steps it plans to take to ensure its own commitments with regards to Northern Ireland are fully honoured,” the spokesman added.
It was not immediately clear if the move to invoke the article, set out in a document published on Friday, would come into effect immediately – or indeed if was some sort of mistake.
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A link to the document was no longer working at 2050 GMT.
Euronews said the whole thing was a ‘mistake’ and an ‘oversight’. The Commission did not comment when contacted by Reuters for clarification.
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.
Preserving the delicate peace in Northern Ireland without allowing the United Kingdom a back door into the EU’s markets through the UK-Irish 310-mile land border was one of the most difficult issues of the Brexit divorce talks.
The EU’s action – even if it rescinds the decision – 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.
The EU move is designed to prevent the open border between EU-member Ireland and Northern Ireland from acting as a backdoor for vaccine supplies into the United Kingdom.
Article 16 was devised as a last resort to alleviate serious disruption to trade in Northern Ireland after Brexit.
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 due to production problems.
The British-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca has been caught in the crosshairs after it said last week it would fall short of delivering promised vaccines to the EU by March because of production problems in Belgium.
That has angered Brussels which has demanded to know why it cannot divert supplies from its British sites which have been producing millions of shots for British citizens.
The European Commission has agreed a plan to control exports of vaccines from the bloc, including to Britain, arguing it needed to do so to ensure its own supplies.
The Commission said its move to invoke Article 16 was justified to “avert serious societal difficulties” in EU states due to a lack of vaccine supply, the document published on Friday said.
Britain has its own domestic supply chain in place for AstraZeneca’s shot, including rolling it out in Northern Ireland, but it imports Pfizer’s vaccine from a factory in Belgium.
Ireland’s Prime Minister Micheál Martin expressed concern to EU chief Ursula von der Leyen over the executive’s decision.
Britain had threatened to trigger the Article 16 safeguard measures earlier in the month if there were “serious problems” in supplying supermarkets in Northern Ireland.
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