EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has publicly said she “deeply regrets” mistakes made in the botched decision to seal the Irish Border in a vaccine supply row.
The apology comes ahead of new EU-UK Brexit talks in London today aimed at fixing problems with the Irish Border protocol.
There is anger in EU capitals at UK efforts to capitalise on Ms von der Leyen’s blunder and this will be confronted today when Michael Gove meets senior Commissioner Maros Sefcovic.
Micheál Martin has held back from criticising Ms von der Leyen and his main challenge in the coming weeks will be to dial down EU leaders’ hostility towards the UK’s efforts to extract advantages for British trade which could damage the single market.
Brussels officials have noted increasing impatience with the UK’s aggressive response and there is a renewed risk the island of Ireland could be ‘squeezed’ as a result.
The Commission president sparked huge controversy across the EU and anger in Dublin, Belfast, and London, when she announced the emergency measure 12 days ago. She invoked the plan under Article 16 in the Brexit deal, aiming to block AstraZeneca vaccines being sent from the EU to the UK through ‘a back door’ via Northern Ireland.
Although she reversed the measure hours later, her move was seized upon by London and the North’s unionists, who are keen to address Northern Ireland’s special status.
President von der Leyen was forced to confront the controversy yesterday, along with ongoing rows about a slow EU vaccine roll-out.
The former German defence minister yesterday acknowledged the Commission error when she spoke at the European Parliament.
“The bottom line is that mistakes were made in the process leading up to the decision and I deeply regret that,” she said in her frankest acknowledgement so far.
However, she also defended her subsequent actions in reversing the move and pledged to continue defending Northern Ireland and its fragile peace in a post-Brexit world.
“But in the end we got it right. 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,” von der Leyen asserted.
She also told MEPs that lessons had to be learned about the slow roll-out of vaccines in Europe.
She also conceded that the EU was late authorising vaccines and put too much confidence in vaccine providers’ assurances on timely supply deliveries.
However, she also strongly defended the EU’s decision to negotiate for vaccine supplies as a bloc of 27 member states, instead of individual governments going it alone.
“I cannot even imagine what would have happened if just a handful of big players, big member states, had rushed to it and everyone else had been left empty-handed,” she said.
“What would that have meant for our internal market and for the unity of Europe? In economic terms it would have been nonsense and would have been the end of our community,” she continued.
The EU leader also defended the Amsterdam-based European Medicines Agency’s meticulous vaccine authorisation process.
“We have made a choice to not make any short-cuts when it comes to safety or efficacy.
“We fully defend that choice. There is no compromise possible when it is a matter of injecting a biologically active substance,” she said.