Brexit: EU Commission says ‘mistakes can happen’
The European Union on Friday sought to restrict exports of COVID-19 vaccines to Northern Ireland by overriding a part of the post-Brexit deal with Britain, a steep escalation of the bloc’s battle to secure vaccine supplies. On Monday, as the episode came full circle, a spokesman for European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pointed the finger at Valdis Dombrovskis, the Commission’s Executive Vice President for Trade for the gaffe.
“What I can tell you is that there is one cabinet which was lead on this, that is Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis, because he is in charge of trade,” the commission’s chief spokesman, Eric Mamer, said when asked for comment on Mrs von der Leyen’s handling of the issue by Bloomberg.
But Mr Mamer told Politico on Monday that Bloomberg had misinterpreted his comments.
He said he had “simply noted that DG Trade penned the initial proposal which evolved significantly over the week as discussions took place between services and Cabinets and led to the inclusion of Article 16.”
Nonetheless, the move was seen as an attempt by the Commission President to shift the blame on her subordinates.
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Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund and of the Peterson Institute in Brussels, slammed Mrs von der Leyen’s handling of the entire vaccination strategy in light of the recent row.
He told The New York Times: “It reflects incredibly poorly on Ursula von der Leyen, she took over this portfolio and made a complete mess of it.
“There’s no redeeming factor in the way the Commission has acted in the last couple weeks and she needs to own it.”
“The egg is on her face, and she can’t wipe it off on the health commissioner,” he added, assuming the Commission chief might blame the incident on Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides next.
Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster described the EU’s decision as “an incredible act of hostility”.
Article 16 of the Northern Irish Protocol allows Britain or the EU to take unilateral action if there is an unexpected negative effect arising from the agreement.
A spokesman for the UK Government said senior cabinet minister Michael Gove had expressed to the EU “concern over a lack of notification”, and said it would be “carefully considering next steps”.
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.
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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. A link to the document was no longer working by Friday evening.
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 Micheal Martin expressed concern to EU chief Ursula von der Leyen over the executive’s decision.
Northern Ireland’s Foster went further. “This is an incredible act of hostility,” she 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.”
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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