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Von der Leyen 'deeply regrets' proposal to trigger Article 16

The move was quickly reversed after much criticism from Ireland, Northern Ireland and Britain.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (file photo)
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (file photo)

Updated Feb 10th 2021, 9:28 AM

THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION President Ursula von der Leyen has said she “deeply regrets” a decision to propose invoking Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol in a row over Covid-19 vaccines.

The proposal was withdrawn hours after being made public, and following much criticism from Ireland, Northern Ireland and Britain.

Speaking at a European Parliament meeting today, EuroParlRadio reported that von der Leyen said: “The bottom line is that mistakes were made in the process leading up to the decision, and I deeply regret that.

“But, in the end we got it right. And I can reassure you that my Commission will do its utmost to protect the peace of Northern Ireland, just as it has done throughout the entire Brexit process.”

Article 16 overrides part of the NI Protocol which prevents a hard border on the island of Ireland, and was intended as an emergency measure only to be used in “serious” circumstances.

A spokesperson for the Commission suggested to TheJournal.ie that the triggering of Article 16 wouldn’t have resulted in checks on the island of Ireland, but would require documentation before vaccines are shipped to Ireland.

European Affairs Minister Thomas Byrne yesterday said the Irish government is seeking a new safety clause to prevent other suggestions for using Article 16.

Von der Leyen is attending the European Parliament today to face questions from MEPs about the EU’s plan to rollout the Covid-19 vaccine.

Four Irish MEPs addressed the European Commission chief in the European Parliament today, with all MEPs raising the Article 16 blunder.

Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher said that the “how, who and why” around the decision needed to be answered. 

“I also need to ask you three questions: how was the decision arrived at, who made the decision, and why.

“These are fundamental questions, because we do need to put in place mechanisms to ensure that Commissions in the future would not make similar mistakes. We are paying with a very sensitive issue on the island of Ireland.

Green MEP Grace O’Sullivan said that, despite von der Leyen’s assertion that “we got it right in the end”, that the Commission “did not get it right”.

“What concrete steps will you put in place to ensure the people of Ireland, north and south, that the delegate situation is never threatened again?”

Sinn Féin’s Chris MacManus said that it was “unacceptable” that the implications of suggesting to trigger Article 16 wasn’t foreseen, and asked for assurances that the “fiasco wouldn’t be repeated”. 

Fine Gael’s Sean Kelly said that assurances were needed that this would not happen again, “because it must not happen again”.

Europe has logged a third of the more than 2.3 million lives lost globally to the virus, which is spreading rapidly despite the start of vaccinations in many nations and forcing the reimposition of unpopular and economically punishing restrictions.

Leaders of the European Union have been engaged in bitter public rows with pharmaceutical firms over supply shortages, as they faced public anger and scrutiny over slow vaccination rollouts in member states.

Vaccine supply issues have already caused a diplomatic row after AstraZeneca said it would not be able to immediately ship the doses it promised to Britain and the EU.

At the same time, the resurgence of infections across the continent is adding to the pressure on EU leadership.

A stricter lockdown will be imposed in Greece from tomorrow, in particular in the Athens region, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, warning that his country was facing a third Covid-19 wave.

Wary of infection numbers exploding again, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will seek to extend strict curbs at least until the end of February as fatigue grows with the partial lockdown in Europe’s top economy.

The heaviest snow in years also added to woes in Europe with transport and infrastructure hit in Germany and Britain.

Some coronavirus vaccination centres in England were forced to close — including major hubs in Ipswich and Colchester.

No breakthrough on virus origin

A much-anticipated World Health Organization inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus wrapped up its mission in China yesterday. They failed to identify which animal may have passed it to humans.

The experts said there was “no indication” the virus was circulating in the ground-zero city of Wuhan before December 2019, when the first official cases were recorded.

WHO expert Peter Ben Embarek also scotched a controversial theory that the virus had leaked from a Wuhan lab, calling it “extremely unlikely”.

China has been ramping up efforts to highlight its role in overcoming the pandemic, including the development of Covid-19 vaccines that have helped start shots in many parts of the world — including hard-hit South America.

Peru yesterday began its immunisation programme with 300,000 doses of the vaccine developed by China’s Sinopharm.

Argentina, meanwhile, said it had given emergency authorisation to the Indian-made version of the AstraZeneca vaccine, following its approval of Russia’s Sputnik V jab.

Bolivia has also been using Sputnik V as it battles a surge in infections, although health workers in its worst-hit region began a two-day strike yesterday to demand a lockdown.

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And in hard-hit Brazil, businesses and non-profit groups announced a plan to speed up the government’s troubled immunisation drive, with the goal of vaccinating the entire country by September.

Valentine’s Day worries

Along with mass vaccinations, researchers and engineers around the world are searching for other ways to help end the pandemic and return life to normal — especially international travel.

Tech-savvy Estonia is working on a pilot project with the WHO on how a globally recognised electronic vaccine certificate might work, including addressing concerns about security and privacy.

A more immediate concern for authorities in many countries this week is Valentine’s Day, with fears that the upcoming celebrations could lead to a surge in infections.

Authorities in Thailand’s capital Bangkok announced the city would not register marriages on Valentine’s Day, a popular day for weddings.

In Brussels, however, where restaurants are closed, some hotels have converted rooms into private dining salons for two.

“We’re over the moon about being here tonight, just like in a restaurant,” said Marine Deroo, a 34-year-old who tried out the concept ahead of Valentine’s Day.

© AFP 2021 with reporting by Órla Ryan

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