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Explained: The EU’s U-turn on vaccine supplies to Northern Ireland, UK

Brussels had last week said it would trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, giving it powers to erect checkpoints at the border between Northern Ireland and the UK.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: February 3, 2021 10:19:33 am
Northern Ireland protocol, Brexit deal Article 16, EU Article 16, Brexit vaccines, EU Covid vaccines, EU scraps Article 16 decision, express explained, indian expressA man walks past graffiti about the Northern Ireland protocol in the Donegal road area of South Belfast, Northern Ireland, on January 30. (Photo: AP)

The EU on Saturday (January 30) said it would not, after all, invoke the recently adopted Brexit deal’s Article 16, which it wanted to do to control the export of vaccines from the bloc to Northern Ireland and the UK.

Brussels had Friday said that it would trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, giving it powers to erect checkpoints at the border between Northern Ireland and the UK to restrict vaccines from crossing over.

The EU’s decision–which was based in part to stem a shortfall of vaccines at home– was reversed within hours, after an uproar in Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

What is Article 16?

Under the Brexit deal between the bloc and the UK, which went into force with the start of 2021, Northern Ireland– a constituent country of the UK– is to remain a part of the EU single market. This means that there is supposed to be an open border between the EU and Northern Ireland, with no restrictions on exported goods.

Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, however, creates an exception to this principle. By invoking this legal measure, either the EU or the UK can unilaterally suspend any part of the Brexit deal which is causing “economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.

So, why did the EU decide to invoke the measure?

In the EU, an angry debate is on about delays in the production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines to its member countries.

Many member states have accused Brussels of being slow in finalising contracts with pharmaceutical companies to ensure the rollout of vaccines, as compared with other rich countries such as the UK and the US. This has placed great pressure on the EU leadership, as doubts have arisen whether the bloc can stick to its plan of vaccinating 70% of adults by the summer.

Matters worsened after British-Swedish manufacturer AstraZeneca that it would cut down on vaccine deliveries due to problems at one of its facilities in the EU. Earlier last week, the EU accused AstraZeneca of not living up to its contract of supplying vaccines to the bloc, and blamed it for giving the UK preferential treatment–allegations the manufacturer denied.

Then on Friday, the EU announced that it would trigger Article 16 to bring in controls on vaccines entering Northern Ireland from the EU, in order to prevent the UK region from becoming a backdoor from where the shots can be sent to the British mainland.

Then why did Brussels backtrack?

Although the bloc said that its Article 16 announcement was “justified”, it sparked concerns from Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin as well as political parties in Northern Ireland, with its First Minister Arlene Foster calling the decision “an absolutely incredible act of hostility”. The World Health Organisation also signalled its displeasure.

Then, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday evening, and Johnson expressed “grave concerns” about the Article 16 decision.

After this, Von der Leyen announced that the EU would be stepping back from its initial plan, announcing in a tweet that there would not be restriction “on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities”.

Why the U-turn is embarrassing for the EU

Ever since the UK chose to leave the EU during the Brexit referendum of 2016, the Irish backstop had remained a stumbling block in negotiations to decide the future of the EU-UK relationship.

During this period, the EU had maintained a strong stance that any future Brexit deal would have to be least disruptive for the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

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Yet on Friday, the EU appeared to be expressing disregard for its own long-held position on the Irish question, and critics accused it of undermining the hard-negotiated Brexit agreement less than a month after it came into force. The EU was also criticised for not consulting member countries, or the UK, before announcing the Article 16 decision.

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