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Timeline: How the EU provoked anger in Ireland and the UK with plans for a hard border for vaccines

The proposal caused outcry on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Image: Brian Lawless/PA Images

THE EU CONTINUES to face criticism after rowing back on plans to prevent Northern Ireland from being used as a back door to funnel Covid-19 vaccines into the UK.

The proposal caused outcry on both sides of the Irish Sea and a rare show of unity between the Irish and UK governments and all of the North’s main political parties, each of whom opposed the move. 

The controversy began when the European Commission looked set to override the Northern Ireland protocol, part of the Brexit withdrawal deal which allows for free movement of goods from the EU into Northern Ireland, preventing a hard border.

The EU had signalled its intention to trigger Article 16 of the protocol to temporarily place export controls on the movement of vaccines amid an ongoing row with AstraZeneca, which has said expected initial deliveries of its Covid-19 jab will fall short.

That controversy is explained in further detail here.

The plans led to frantic talks between Dublin, London and Brussels on Friday evening, before the EU was forced to do a dramatic u-turn at the literal eleventh hour.

Here’s how the controversy unfolded… 

Wednesday, 27 January

The EU announces it will set up a “vaccine export transparency mechanism″ until the end of March to control vaccine shipments to non-EU countries, with any exporting company required to submit its plans to national authorities.

“Europe invested billions to help develop the world’s first Covid-19 vaccines and create a truly global common good,” a tweet from the European Commission featuring Ursula von der Leyen said.

“Now the companies must deliver and honour their obligations.”

Officials insist that the measure is not an export ban and that the move is intended to ensure member nations receive doses they bought from vaccine producers.

Thursday, 28 January

Amid the EU’s ongoing row with AstraZeneca, Belgian health officials inspect a plant producing the company’s Covid-19 vaccine in Seneffe at the request of the European Commission.

Speculation mounts that the EU will set up a vaccine monitoring system to give member states an opportunity to ban shipments to non-EU countries if they are not “legitimate”.

European Council President Charles Michel (who is Belgian) welcomes the move in a letter to the leaders of four member states.

“The EU needs to take robust action to secure its supply of vaccines and demonstrate concretely that the protection of its citizens remains our absolute priority,” he says.

Officials say the emergency measure being designed by the EU will not be targeted at any company, but speculation is rife that the mechanism is aimed at AstraZeneca because of the vaccine row and which is producing some of its vaccines at its Belgian plant.

The system, dubbed a “transparency and licencing mechanism for exports”, aims to gather information on how many Covid-19 vaccines are sent out of the EU.

It’s reported that companies which want to export Covid-19 vaccines from the EU would be required to contact authorities in the EU member state in which their plant was located for authorisation, which as a rule would be given within “hours”.

“There is a possibility in certain circumstances not to allow the export to move forward. But the basic assumption is that the exports will take place as foreseen,” an unnamed EU official tells AFP.

Friday, 29 January

12pm

The EU publishes details of its contract for Covid-19 vaccines with AstraZeneca.

The contract mentions that the pharmaceutical company would use “best reasonable efforts” to use plants based in the EU and in the UK as production sites for vaccines destined for EU countries.

2pm

UK Prisons minister Lucy Frazer says the country will aid neighbouring countries with their vaccine supplies “where it can” – but says UK citizens must come first.

“Our priority is to ensure we vaccinate people in the UK, but of course, where we can help our friends and neighbours, we would do that,” she says.

4pm

The European Medicines Agency announces its approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine all EU citizens over the age of 18. 

5.30pm

Reports emerge that the European Commission has triggered Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol as part of wider EU controls on vaccine exports, in order to prevent vaccines being exported to the North, and thus into the UK.

The move effectively implements a hard border (although in this case, for vaccines only) on the island of Ireland.

Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster brands the move an “incredible act of hostility”.

“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,” she says.

Foster calls on the UK government to step up and says she will urge Prime Minister Boris Johnson to act.

coronavirus-tue-jan-12-2021 Source: PA

5.58pm

Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis tweets reassurances about the North’s vaccine supply, without directly mentioning the controversy that is unfolding.

“NI receives its vaccines as part of UK-wide procurement – with over 220,000 vaccines administered to date,” he says.

“The Govt has contracts with AstraZeneca and others to ensure vaccines are delivered on schedule and guarantee reliable vaccine provision across the whole of the UK.”

6.02pm

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken is the next Northern Irish party leader out of the blocks.

Not letting a good crisis go to waste, he criticises Lewis for not triggering Article 16 sooner – although his problem is that it wasn’t used to prevent disruption to trade between the North and the UK after the Brexit transition period ended on 1 January.

“For weeks now we have been told that Article 16 cannot be invoked accompanied by all sorts of feeble excuses for not doing so,” he says.

“The EU has unilaterally blown that concept out of the water by invoking Article 16 [...] Despite EU claims that they always acted in the best interests of Northern Ireland, when push came to shove, the EU looked after itself.

“The EU is unilaterally invoking Article 16 to protect its own interests and it’s about time the UK Government did the same instead of being lead actors in a ridiculous charade that there is no border in the Irish Sea and that Article 16 can’t be invoked.”

6.45pm

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove tells the EU that the UK is “carefully considering” what to do next.

In a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, a spokesman says Gove informed European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic about the UK’s concern it had not been notified about the decision to trigger Article 16.

7.00pm

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood describes the European Commission’s move as “a grave error in judgement” and says it undermines progress made to defend the interests of the island of Ireland.

“We face a common threat. Our response to this virus, and to the supply of vaccines, should be characterised by our common values,” he says.

“This decision sadly places the commission at odds with those values.”

7.30pm

Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s spokesperson confirms he is aware of the European Commission’s move and that he is in discussions with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to express his concerns

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney also tweets: “We are working with the EU Commission to try to resolve this issue and protect the integrity and operation of the NI Protocol.”

7.45pm

Sinn Féin vice president and NI Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill issues a statement on behalf of her party.

She tweets: “I have just spoken with the Irish Govt to raise my very serious concerns in relation to the invoking of Art. 16. This is a totally ill judged move by the EU and should not have been triggered. Calm heads need to prevail, this needs sorted urgently.”

mother-and-baby-homes-report Source: PA

Meanwhile Conservative MP and chairman of the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Simon Hoare, describes the EU’s move as “unconscionable folly”.

“We need calm, stability and level-headedness,” he says.

8.20pm

Alliance MP Stephen Farry completes the condemnation of the commission’s move by the North’s main political parties, saying the decision to use Article 16 in a bid to control vaccine distribution is not justified or warranted.

“We don’t need a vaccine war, and other alternatives exist for the EU to manage its vaccine supply,” he says.

“The situation in Northern Ireland is already fragile and we should not be placed at the centre of this dispute.”

He calls on the European Commission to urgently reconsider its move.

8.40pm

Downing Street issues an official statement, warning the EU that “as a friend and ally” it should not attempt to disrupt UK vaccine supplies.

“The UK Government is urgently seeking an explanation from the European Commission about the statements issued by the EU today and assurances as to its intentions,” it says.

“The UK Government has reiterated the importance of preserving the benefits of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the commitments that have been made to the two communities.”

9.20pm

Boris Johnson confirms he has had a “constructive discussion” with Taoiseach Micheal Martin about the matter.

A spokesman says Johnson stressed the UK’s “enduring commitment” to the Good Friday agreement and told Martin that the EU must urgently clarify what steps it planned to take to ensure its own commitments to Northern Ireland.

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10pm

Another statement from Johnson’s spokesperson announces that the Prime Minister has spoken to von der Leyen and expressed “grave concerns” about the triggering of Article 16.

coronavirus-wed-jan-27-2020 Source: PA

10.45pm

The European Union backs down on its threat to override the Northern Ireland protocol.

An EU source tells the PA news agency the move had been a “misjudgment” after the commission says it is “not triggering the safeguard clause” to ensure the protocol is “unaffected”.

A statement from the European Commission says: ” The Commission is not triggering the safeguard clause.”

However, it warns that if vaccine exports towards non-EU countries are abused to circumvent the effects of the EU’s authorisation system, it will consider “using all the instruments at its disposal”.

10.55pm

The Taoiseach welcomes the EU’s reversal as a “positive development”.

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

11.05pm

Coveney also tweets praise for the u-turn, but warns that “lessons should be learned”.

“The protocol is not something to be tampered with lightly, it’s an essential, hard won compromise, protecting peace & trade for many,” he says.

11.10pm

Ursula von der Leyen issues a statement to confirm she has spoken to Micheál Martin “to agree on a satisfactory way to introduce an export authorisation mechanism for COVID vaccines”.

Saturday, 30 January

7am

The fallout continues.

Julian Smith, a Conservative MP and former Northern Ireland secretary, says the “EU cocked up big time”.

“And they did that, in my view, without anywhere near the understanding of the Good Friday Agreement, of the sensitivity of the situation in Northern Ireland, and it was an almost Trumpian act,” he tells BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Arlene Foster appears on the same programme to describe the move as “absolutely disgraceful”.

She warns of “great unrest and great tension” in the region and urges Boris Johnson to tear up and replace the Northern Ireland protocol.

“The protocol is unworkable, let’s be very clear about that, and we need to see it replaced because otherwise there is going to be real difficulties here in Northern Ireland,” she says.

Pressed whether that would be in breach of an international treaty, she says: “Well it didn’t seem to bother the European Union yesterday when they breached the treaty in terms of their embarrassment around their vaccine procurement.”

Sunday, 31 January

The Taoiseach tells both the BBC and RTÉ Radio that he was given no advance notice of the intention by the EU to trigger Article 16.

He tells RTÉ that his officials first heard about the move in a public statement, and that he only started negotiations with president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen after the commission decided to override the protocol.

He also defended the protocol on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show.

“It’s a good thing, the protocol, overall,” he said.

“There are issues there that we have to fine-tune and work out, but essentially I think there are positives there medium term for Northern Ireland in terms of its economic development which we should not underestimate.

“We are only four weeks into the operation of the protocol, there are bound to be teething problems, but I do acknowledge the need for engagement here on all sides, between the European Union, the United Kingdom and the Irish Government, and the Northern Ireland Executive.”

With reporting from Press Association and © AFP 2021.

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