Ireland was not consulted by the European Commission before it briefly sought to restrict some exports of COVID-19 vaccines by invoking an emergency Brexit clause related to Northern Ireland, Ireland’s European Affairs Minister said.
The EU abruptly reversed the plan to use the Article 16 clause to restrict exports of COVID-19 vaccines from crossing the Irish border into the United Kingdom within a matter of hours on Friday after it sent shockwaves through Northern Ireland, London and Dublin.
The initial decision to use the Brexit clause – part of wider EU plans to control the exports of vaccines – illustrated how the carefully tuned Northern Ireland Brexit protocol can go awry, as well as showing the panic over vaccine availability.
“This type of provision is standard in trade agreements but in the Northern Ireland situation, it obviously has a different political resonance and it’s perhaps the case that this wasn’t fully appreciated by the drafters,” Ireland’s Europe Minister Thomas Byrne told Newstalk radio on Saturday.
“Clearly a mistake was made,” Byrne said. “It’s too early for me to say (how it happened) … It’s clear the implications of Article 16 weren’t fully thought through, that’s a pity, but it’s a lesson to us all at this point.”
Asked if Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin was given any forewarning of the planned triggering of the provision, devised as a last resort to alleviate serious disruption to trade in Northern Ireland after Brexit, Byrne said he was not.
Three senior EU diplomats said member states were neither consulted on, or informed of, the commission’s decision.
“It seems the commission took this decision unilaterally,” an EU official said.
The official said it appeared the commission’s intention was to include Northern Ireland in the vaccines export control regime, but that this effectively created a land border on the island of Ireland, and it had to row back when it realised the implications.
Preserving the 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of sectarian bloodshed in Northern Ireland, without allowing the UK to become a back door into the EU’s markets through the UK-Irish land border, led to the inclusion of the protocol in Britain’s divorce deal.
The protocol achieved this by keeping Northern Ireland both in the EU’s single market for goods, and the UK’s customs territory, and “is not something to be tampered with lightly,” Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney warned on Friday.
Following the diplomatic row, Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster urged Britain to remove the post-Brexit protocol with the EU.
“The protocol is unworkable, let’s be very clear about that, and we need to see it replaced because otherwise there is going to be real difficulties here in Northern Ireland,” Foster told BBC radio on Saturday.
“It’s absolutely disgraceful, and I have to say the Prime Minister (Boris Johnson) now needs to act very quickly to deal with the real trade flows that are being disrupted between Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” added Foster who has long been critical of the protocol.