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Commission decision to invoke Article 16 without consulting Irish government 'extraordinary'

Coveney said relationships had been damaged by the move and trust will now have to be rebuilt.

Image: RollingNews.ie

MINISTER FOR FOREIGN Affairs Simon Coveney has said the decision by the European Commission to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to stop flow of vaccines into the North from the EU was ‘extraordinary’.

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.

On Friday the EU had signalled its intention to trigger Article 16 of the protocol, a safeguard clause, to temporarily place export controls on this movement in respect of vaccines.

The European Commission later rowed back on those plans, but the move has caused tension, particularly with the Northern Ireland Executive. 

Speaking to Pat Kenny on Newstalk this morning, Minister Coveney described the move made by the European Commission as “a costly mistake” that was made in an attempt to “solve an entirely different problem to Brexit”.

Coveney said the Commission has been under pressure to ensure that member states are treated fairly by AstraZeneca after the company stated its supply of vaccine to the EU in the first three months of the year would be reduced. 

“There was a lot of evidence to suggest that AstraZenca were saying that they could not follow through on the commitments that they made to deliver huge volumes of vaccine to the EU, yet they were fully following through on their commitments to other third countries,” he said.

“So what the EU Commission proposed was that there would be a vaccine authorisation scheme which would be contingent on companies complying with their contractual commitments to the EU.”

The minister said someone in the Commission had clearly given advice to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that the protocol would allow Northern Ireland to be used by the pharmaceutical company as a “back door” into Britain with vaccine supplies from the EU. 

“It was a costly mistake, it shouldn’t have happened. It wouldn’t have happened if there had been any consultation with the Irish government and I think everybody regrets that now,” he said. 

He said once the issue was communicated to Ireland the government “objected strongly and immediately” and the decision was reversed that same evening.

Coveney said announcing the decision without having communicated with governments in the Republic, in the North or in Britain was “an extraordinary thing to do”.

“In simple terms you do not touch the Northern Ireland-Irish protocol without talking to the Irish and British governments and also to the Executive in Northern Ireland.

It’s far too sensitive, it’s a very fine balance in terms of a compromise negotiated over a long period of time and it does very important work – the protocol – in terms of protecting the Peace Process, preventing border infrastructure, facilitating trade between Northern Ireland and the UK.

“To do anything that would disrupt or undermine that, particularly on an issue that isn’t linked to the Brexit issues at all was a mistake that will not happen again.

The minister said he was not interested in “blaming people” and that the focus should be on learning lessons and rebuilding relationships and trust that had been damaged by the decision.

Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster has said she does not accept that the move was a mistake. 

“It was absolutely an act of hostility and actually they have not ruled out using it again,” she told BBC Radio Ulster.

The blunder came amid mounting pressure on the Commission to address vaccine shortages across the EU.

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All three companies that produce vaccines approved by the European Medicines Agency (Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca) have reported supply issues in the last month as member states struggle to manage the roll-our of the vaccination programmes. 

Following tense negotiations with AstraZeneca last week, the Commission said the company will deliver nine million additional doses in the first three months of 2021, with deliveries starting a week earlier than planned. 

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