THE EU was forced into an embarrassing U-turn last night as it backtracked on a decision to block vaccines being transported into Northern Ireland.
The move followed hours of diplomatic chaos after it emerged the EU triggered an article of the Northern Ireland Protocol which introduces checks on goods entering Northern Ireland.
This would have allowed EU authorities stop the importation of vaccines manufactured on the continent entering Northern Ireland.
A European Commission source described the decision to invoke the article as an “oversight”.
The source said a “mistake was made somewhere along the way” and insisted vaccines would not be stopped from entering the North.
Under the Brexit deal agreed between the UK and EU goods are permitted to move freely between the North and South of Ireland.
Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol allows either side introduce controls on goods in emergency situations.
There were frantic phones calls between Taoiseach Micheal Martin and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen when it emerged vaccines could be prevented from moving between the EU and Northern Ireland.
There was also significant backlash against the EU from both sides of the Border when the decision emerged.
The row was sparked by moves to override the Northern Ireland protocol, signed as part of Brexit, to prevent vaccines manufactured on the continent from being delivered to the UK.
The EU at first appeared to have invoked Article 16 of the Brexit withdrawal deal.
However, in a statement late last night, the Commission said it will “ensure the Northern Ireland Protocol is unaffected” – but left the door open to using “all the instruments at its disposal” if vaccines are transported outside the union to third countries in such a way as to circumvent a new authorisation system.
The statement said it was putting in place a measure requiring that vaccine exports would be subject to an authorisation by EU member states.
This was was to tackle “the current lack of transparency of vaccine exports” outside
The final version of the implementing regulation will be published following its adoption today.
An original text of the legislation that had appeared on the Commission’s website – and mentioned Article 16 – was later removed.
A government source said the Taoiseach had not been given any advance warning of the EU decision to invoke the article in the protocol.
The source said the article may have been inadvertently triggered by “someone who did not understand the political implications” of the decision.
Some EU officials are understood to be livid about the move, which they see as ruining the work they’ve done since the Brexit vote in 2016.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Mr Martin spoke on the phone last night as the row developed.
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “The prime minister had a constructive discussion with the Taoiseach Micheál Martin. The PM set out his concerns about the EU’s use of Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol and what these actions may mean for the two communities in Northern Ireland.
“The PM stressed the UK’s commitment to working together with other countries in response to the coronavirus pandemic.”
The move follows a very public spat between the EU and vaccine manufacture AstraZeneca.