29 January 2021 | UK NEWS

Earlier today, the European Union announced that it was implementing controls on vaccines made in the bloc, including to Northern Ireland, following an argument about delivery shortfalls. Under the agreed Brexit deal, all products should be exported from the EU to Northern Ireland without checks.

The First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, described the move by the EU as “an incredible act of hostility”. The Leader of the DUP also stated that she believed the EU are “prepared to use Northern Ireland when it suits their [the EU’s] interests” and claimed it was in “the most despicable manner”. Foster labelled the European Union’s behaviour “aggressive” and “most shameful”.

Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland have been agitating for the UK government to use Article 16 to reduce checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. The government has been resisting this, insisting the new arrangements are not creating serious difficulties.

But the EU today invoked Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which allows sections of the deal to be unilaterally overridden. RTE News reports that the Irish Government was not actually made aware that the European Commission had triggered Article 16 as part of “its launch of the vaccine transparency mechanism”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen earlier tonight, and is understood to have insisted the EU must “urgently clarify its intentions” in respect of this decision.

The European Commission stated: “This is justified as a safeguard measure pursuant to Article 16 of that Protocol in order to avert serious societal difficulties due to a lack of supply threatening to disturb the orderly implementation of the vaccination campaigns in the Member States.”

But it did not notify either the UK or the Republic of Ireland before doing so, which may amount to a breach of the revised Withdrawal Agreement treaty signed between the UK and the EU.

The move comes amid a dispute over producer AstraZeneca’s delivery commitments to the EU. The bloc had agreed to buy up to 400 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine last year, and the EU’s drug regulatory body today approved their use for all adults.

However, as of 10pm tonight, it is understood in Westminster that the EU has now reversed this decision, after coming under pressure from the governments of both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

EU sources are said to have suggested that the invocation of Article 16 had been an “oversight”, implying that someone without sufficient knowledge of the details of the agreement had made the decision.

The European Commission has now released the following statement on the matter, saying that it is “not triggering the safeguard clause”, but that it would consider using “all the instruments at its disposal” if the transit of vaccines is “abused”:

Responding, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Louise Haigh, said: “The European Union are right to have stepped back from their decision. This profound misjudgment 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.”

Andrew is a political reporter and researcher. He has been a writer for a number of political and financial sites. His interests include classical history and rowing.

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