BRUSSELS – The European Union abruptly reversed attempts early Saturday to restrict exports of vaccines from the bloc via Northern Ireland to the UK.
The bloc was heavily criticized by Britain, Ireland and the World Health Organization on Friday when it announced plans to take immediate action under the Brexit deal to prevent Covid-19 vaccines from being shipped across the Irish border into the UK.
The reversal occurred when the European Commission and its President Ursula von der Leyen were already under fire for the comparatively slow introduction of vaccinations in the 27 member states, especially when compared to Great Britain and the United States.
The commission announced the restrictions without consulting member states or the UK, a former member – unusually aggressive behavior not typical of the bloc, Mujtaba Rahman, head of Europe for Eurasia Group, told a political risk adviser.
“There is clearly panic at the highest levels of the Commission and the issue of the Northern Ireland Agreement has been taken up on this larger issue of poor EU vaccination performance,” he said.
The drama was developing as the bloc’s plan to vaccinate 70 percent of its adult population by the summer came to an end. The European Union was already slow in ordering and delivering vaccines and was hit by a devastating blow when AstraZeneca announced it would reduce vaccine shipments due to production problems.
The original EU plan to limit vaccine exports to non-EU countries sparked outrage in both the Republic of Ireland, a member of the European Union, and Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom. Both sides undertake not to restore any land border between the two parts of the island of Ireland.
The triggering of the emergency measures in the Brexit deal so soon after the UK left the bloc’s authority in late 2020 seemed to question the sincerity of the European Union to enforce the deal with Ireland – which is one of the biggest sticking points for reaching the deal was deal. Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin immediately raised the issue with Ms. von der Leyen.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to both leaders. And Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first female minister, described the bloc’s move as “an incredible act of hostility”.
Brits who supported Brexit point to the faster adoption of vaccinations in their country to get out of the bloc and its slower collective processes.
Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative MEP in the UK Parliament who initially opposed Brexit but reluctantly voted for the deal, said on Twitter that the signals from the vaccine dispute are cause for concern.
“Whatever you think about Brexit, it is now perfectly clear how we are seen by the EU – we are out,” he said, “and goodwill is thrifty.” He called for policies that “rebuild relationships”.
Ms. von der Leyen and the Commission were quick to back down, insisting that a mistake had been made and that any vaccine export controls would ensure the Brexit deal, which gave assurances that there would be no new border controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland would be “untouched”. This protocol essentially treats Northern Ireland as part of the European Union’s regulatory space.
It was clear, however, that the move to introduce export controls was aimed at preventing vaccine doses made in the European Union from being sent across the open border on the island of Ireland to the UK.
The British took it as an aggressive act. Mr Johnson called Ms. von der Leyen and said he had “expressed serious concern about the potential impact”.
The World Health Organization joined the criticism of EU export controls, saying that such measures could prolong the pandemic. Its general director, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Friday that “vaccine nationalism” could lead to a “lengthy recovery”. Mariangela Simao, deputy director general for drug access, said Saturday’s move was part of a “very worrying trend.”
After talking to Mr Martin and Mr Johnson and the Council of the Ambassador of the European Union in London, Ms. von der Leyen published a tweet after midnight with the words: “We have agreed on the principle that the export of vaccines must not be restricted by companies with whom they fulfill contractual obligations. “
The bloc still intends to put in place export controls that could prevent vaccines made in the European Union from being shipped to non-EU countries, but without including Northern Ireland, which definitely sources its vaccines from the UK.
Earlier this week, the Commission and Ms von der Leyen accused the British-Swedish company of breaching its contract. They suggested that AstraZeneca, which works with a vaccine developed at Oxford University, give the UK preferential treatment and even send some vaccines made in the European Union there instead.
AstraZeneca denied the charges, and its chairman, Pascal Soriot, insisted that the contract with the European Union required only “best efforts” to meet delivery schedules.
The UK signed its own contract with the company three months before the European Union, Soriot said, and under that contract UK-made vaccines would have to get there first.
The lawyers disagreed on the language of the EU treaty, which was only partially published.
Ms von der Leyen, who previously left most of the vaccine dispute to her commissioners, said Thursday that the bloc would put in place a temporary export control mechanism to block exports of vaccines made in the European Union – a move clearly on AstraZeneca that also produces in Belgium.
Approval to use the AstraZeneca vaccine in the European Union was only granted on Friday. The company could therefore hardly be held responsible for the existing vaccination deficits resulting from previous decisions by the Commission to order the entire block in bulk, which lowered the price of vaccines but delayed orders and deliveries.
Nor did it contribute to the block unity when first the German government and then French President Emmanuel Macron cast doubts as to whether the AstraZeneca vaccine was effective for people over 65 years of age – contrary to what the European Medicines Agency said when she approved the vaccine for all adults.
For the German magazine Der Spiegel, which is not a fan of Frau von der Leyen, the abuse of the vaccine rollout is their responsibility. “Europe is facing a vaccination disaster,” wrote the magazine, “which could ultimately turn out to be the greatest catastrophe of its entire political career.”