LONDON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union on Friday abruptly reversed a plan to use emergency Brexit measures to restrict exports of COVID-19 vaccines from crossing the Irish border into the United Kingdom after it sent shockwaves through Northern Ireland, London and Dublin.
In a steep escalation of the EU’s fight to secure vaccine supplies, Brussels had said it would trigger clauses in the Northern Irish Protocol to prevent the vaccines from moving across the open border between EU-member Ireland and the British-run province.
Following an outcry in London, Belfast and Dublin, the EU published a statement just before midnight saying it would ensure that the Northern Ireland Protocol, designed to keep the border open, would not be affected.
It warned, however, that should vaccines and active substances move toward third countries and out of the bloc, it would use “all the instruments at its disposal”.
Ireland said the EU’s change of heart was welcome but that lessons should be learned.
“The Protocol is not something to be tampered with lightly, it’s an essential, hard won compromise, protecting peace and trade for many,” Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney said on Twitter.
The EU’s original plan was intended to prevent the open border between EU-member Ireland and Northern Ireland from acting as a backdoor for vaccine supplies into the United Kingdom.
The public reversal followed a round of frantic calls as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen of his “grave concerns” while Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin spoke to both Johnson and the EU chief to find a solution.
Northern Irish unionists cast the EU’s original plan as an act of hostility.
In a tweet late on Friday, von der Leyen said she had spoken to Johnson: “We agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities.”
The swiftest mass vaccination drive in history is stoking tensions across the world as big powers buy up doses in bulk and poorer nations try to navigate a financial and diplomatic minefield to collect whatever supplies are left.
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 because of 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 angered Brussels which has demanded to know why the company cannot divert supplies from its British sites, which have been producing millions of shots for British citizens.
Britain has its own domestic supply chain in place for AstraZeneca, including rolling it out in Northern Ireland, but it imports Pfizer’s vaccine from a factory in Belgium.
The European Commission agreed to a broader plan to control exports of vaccines from the bloc, including to Britain, arguing it needed to do so to ensure its own supplies.
But the EU’s abortive attempt to use the Northern Ireland Protocol triggered anger in the province.
Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster described it as “an incredible act of hostility”.
Preserving the delicate peace in Northern Ireland without allowing the United Kingdom a back door into the EU’s markets through the UK-Irish 310-mile land border was one of the most difficult issues of the Brexit divorce talks.
(Reporting by Kate Holton, Andy Bruce and William James; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Daniel Wallis, Aurora Ellis and Grant McCool)