18:21 GMT06 March 2021
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    The European Union, which has been far outpaced by the UK in its race to inoculate its population, threatened to invoke Northern Ireland Brexit emergency powers to control the flow of COVID-19 vaccines into Britain on Friday, but was forced to backtrack on part of the announcement after an immediate backlash from London, Dublin and Belfast.

    Ireland officials possibly threatened to use their government’s connection to US President Joe Biden to force the European Commission to backtrack on its threats to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol and impose export controls on COVID-19 vaccines, according to The Telegraph.

    Amid the heated row between the UK and the European Union, which was under fire for lagging behind in its anti-COVID rollout, diplomats in Brussels reportedly speculated that Dublin could have 'picked up the Batphone to Biden' to sway the bloc’s stance.

    Ireland had been blindsided by the European Union’s threats, triggered by the dispute over vaccine producer AstraZeneca’s jab delivery commitments to the EU.

    The unexpected developments forced a telephone call between Michael Martin, the prime minister and head of government of Ireland, and Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president.

    ​Brussels’ diplomats reportedly suggested Dublin could have reminded the EC head that Biden, who has Irish roots, has regularly warned the UK against installing a hard border in Ireland - one of the foundations of the final Brexit agreement.

    EU officials were swift to reverse their decision on Friday night and acknowledge that invoking emergency powers to control trade across the Northern Irish border had been a mistake, as preventing controls at the border was the central issue in five years of Brexit negotiations.

    "It's a lot better to realise early on that something might be a problem and to change it, than to stick to your guns and dig a hole for yourself," an EU official was cited as saying on Saturday.

    Ireland officials reportedly believe that the EU had acted in haste, failing to fully understand the ‘sensitivities’ of the protocol.

    ‘Time for Cool Heads and Solidarity’

    Political parties in the north and south of Ireland put aside differences to concur that the EU move would have been a disaster.

    Arlene Foster, the first minister of Northern Ireland, described the threat by Brussels to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol as 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," said the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster.

    ​Colum Eastwood, the leader of the SDLP, the moderate nationalist party, branded it a “serious error of judgment”.

    ​Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, tweeted that 'lessons should be learned from the situation.

    ​Louise Haigh MP, Labour's Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, said the move by the EU was "deeply destabilising and undermines the huge efforts being made to make the Protocol work".

    Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald described the EU's use of Article 16 as a "grave error".

    ​Northern Ireland Protocol

    The Northern Ireland Protocol is a special deal aimed at preventing the re-emergence of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

    Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol is a safeguard that would allow the UK or EU to act unilaterally if measures imposed as a result of the protocol are deemed to be causing "serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties".

    A Motorist crosses the Irish border in Middletown, Northern Ireland, Tuesday, March, 12, 2019. The issue of a possible physical border between the United Kingdom's Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU state, received scant attention during the 2016 Brexit referendum. But it has proven to be a major stumbling block in the British government's quest for a divorce deal.
    © AP Photo / Peter Morrison
    A Motorist crosses the Irish border in Middletown, Northern Ireland, Tuesday, March, 12, 2019. The issue of a possible physical border between the United Kingdom's Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU state, received scant attention during the 2016 Brexit referendum. But it has proven to be a major stumbling block in the British government's quest for a divorce deal.

    Of late, unionist politicians in Northern Ireland have been urging the UK government to trigger Article 16 to reduce checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, amid interrupted trade flows.

    The difficulties arose as Great Britain is now outside the EU single market, while Northern Ireland is still following many single market rules. Northern Ireland gets its vaccine supplies through the UK procurement system.

    However, Downing Street has been resisting the calls, insisting the new arrangements are workable.

    Jab Supply Row

    As politicians in the EU are under fire over shortcomings in vaccine rollout, the bloc was furious earlier to discover that British-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca would delay delivery of promised jab doses to the EU by March over production problems in Belgium.

    The shortfall is expected to be about 60 per cent in the first quarter of 2021. The EU has also received fewer than expected doses of its two other approved vaccines, by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

    A healthcare worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine to a person at the Newcastle Racecourse vaccination centre, in Newcastle upon Tyne, Britain January 29, 2021
    © REUTERS / LEE SMITH
    A healthcare worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine to a person at the Newcastle Racecourse vaccination centre, in Newcastle upon Tyne, Britain January 29, 2021

    As Brussels insisted AstraZeneca honour its commitments, the drugmaker said its contract for UK supplies prohibit that, as it was on course to fulfil Britain's order.

    The company's CEO Pascal Soriot said earlier this week that the contract obliged AstraZeneca to make its "best effort" to meet EU demand, without compelling it to a specific timetable.

    Topic:
    Global COVID-19 Cases Spike to Highest Level Post-Lockdown (301)

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    Tags:
    AstraZeneca, Arlene Foster, Joe Biden, vaccine, Vaccines, vaccines, vaccine, coronavirus, COVID-19, Boris Johnson, Ursula von der Leyen, Simon Coveney, Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Ireland
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