After a frenzied rush to introduce controls to ostensibly stop vaccine exports from reaching the UK through Northern Ireland, and then backpedaling on the move in the wake of widespread censure, the EU has been denounced by politicians in London, Dublin, and Belfast for mulling over an "incredible act of hostility."
"The EU cocked up big time last night, but we all need to work in the interest of preserving Northern Ireland. It is not just a backdoor for goods going to Britain, it is a very sensitive place and we have a duty between the EU and UK to ensure there is no hard border," said Ex-Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith.
The remarks came amid what has already been dubbed a "vaccine war" between the UK and what ex-Brexit minister David Jones called a "Mafia-like" EU.
Brussels had blindsided politicians by seeking to temporarily suspend part of the Brexit deal to create a hard border on Ireland.
EU sources have reportedly admitted that invoking Article 16 of the Brexit deal was a "misjudgment," and the European Commission U-turned on the move, saying that it will ensure the Northern Ireland Protocol is "unaffected."
Playing Politics with People’s Lives’
Nevertheless, as Brussels finds itself under fire over the slow delivery of vaccines to the 27 member-states, with questions raised about European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s management, the bloc has a new export ban in place to stop companies from sending jabs across the channel to the UK.
The move could block the arrival of 3.5 million jabs ordered from Pfizer BioNTech in Belgium – ex-Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith called the move "almost Trumpian."
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson denounced the decision, which meant the bloc overrode part of the Brexit deal to create a hard border in Ireland. A Downing Street spokesperson said this:
"The Prime Minister spoke to EU Commission president Ursula Von Der Leyen this evening. He expressed his grave concerns about the potential impact which the steps the EU has taken today on vaccine exports could have."
Arlene Foster, first minister of Northern Ireland, branded the EU move an “incredible act of hostility" and accused Brussels of “playing politics with people’s lives."
“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… At the first opportunity the EU has placed a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland over the supply chain of the Coronavirus vaccine,” she said.
The Republic of Ireland's Premier Micheal Martin also reached out to von der Leyen to "express concerns" about the plan.
Constructive talks with Prime Minister @BorisJohnson tonight.— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) January 29, 2021
We agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities.
Despite their reversal of the decision to suspend the Brexit deal provision, the European Commission announced:
"To tackle the current lack of transparency of vaccine exports outside the EU, the Commission is putting in place a measure requiring that such exports are subject to an authorisation by Member States. In the process of finalisation of this measure, the Commission will ensure that the Ireland / Northern Ireland Protocol is unaffected. The Commission is not triggering the safeguard clause.”
The EU promised to “consider using all the instruments at its disposal” if vaccine transits violate the bloc's authorisation system. The new rule comes into force on Saturday and will last until March.
Vaccine makers will be required to disclose all shipments sent abroad over the last three months.
The vaccine row with the UK erupted earlier in the week when Brussels claimed the country was "hijacking" doses.
Amid setbacks to its coronavirus inoculation plans due to production glitches plaguing two vaccines, and a shortfall in deliveries from AstraZeneca, tempers flared as Britain was seen to be outpacing the bloc in inoculation rates.
After AstraZeneca revealed last week a looming shortfall in deliveries, anticipated to be around 60 percent in the first quarter of 2021, von der Leyen accused the British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical giant of misrepresenting its contract with the bloc.
Three of the European Union’s jab suppliers, Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca have failed to live up to promises, causing rollout setbacks in several of the bloc’s member states.
The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has urged co-operation between Brussels and the UK over the supply of vaccines across Europe.
“I believe we must face this crisis with responsibility, certainly not with the spirit of oneupmanship or unhealthy competition. I recommend preserving the spirit of co-operation between us,” he was quoted by The Times as saying.
Amid the developments, a No 10 spokesman said:
“The UK has legally-binding agreements with vaccine suppliers and it would not expect the EU, as a friend and ally, to do anything to disrupt the fulfilment of these contracts.”