Covid: EU backtracks after triggering part of Brexit agreement to limit vaccine exports to Northern Ireland

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen

The European Union has backtracked and said it is "not triggering the safeguard clause" to ensure the Northern Ireland Protocol is "unaffected" after widespread condemnation of its move to block the supply of Covid-19 vaccines to Northern Ireland.

It was expected that the EU would use its powers in the protocol to temporarily place export controls on this movement in respect of vaccines but this is not now the case.

ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen called Friday's events "continental scale ineptitude".

ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston explains the impact of Friday's events

A statement from the European Commission said: “To tackle the current lack of transparency of vaccine exports outside the EU, the Commission is putting in place a measure requiring that such exports are subject to an authorisation by Member States.

“In the process of finalisation of this measure, the Commission will ensure that the Ireland / Northern Ireland Protocol is unaffected. The Commission is not triggering the safeguard clause.

“Should transits of vaccines and active substances toward third countries be abused to circumvent the effects of the authorisation system, the EU will consider using all the instruments at its disposal.

“In the process of finalising the document, the commission will also be fine-tuning the decision-making process under the implementing regulation.”

Irish premier Micheal Martin has welcomed the decision not to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol on Brexit.

He tweeted: “Welcome decision by the European Commission tonight not to invoke the safeguard clause of the Ireland / Northern Ireland Protocol following constructive discussions with @vonderleyen

“This is a positive development given the many challenges we face in tackling COVID-19.”

Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow secretary for Northern Ireland, said the EU reversing its decision was the “right” move.

She said: “This profound misjudgement has caused unnecessary damage and set back efforts to make the Protocol work.

“The European Union – and all those interested in stability in Northern Ireland – now have a responsibility to redouble their efforts to make the Protocol work.”

What was said?

Boris Johnson told EU Commission president Ursula Von Der Leyen he had "grave concerns" about the prospect of triggering the protocol.

Stormont First Minister Mrs Foster said: “By triggering Article 16 in this manner, the European Union has once again shown it is prepared to use Northern Ireland when it suits their interests but in the most despicable manner – over the provision of a vaccine which is designed to save lives.

“At the first opportunity, the EU has placed a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland over the supply chain of the coronavirus vaccine.”

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill has spoken with the Irish government over the European Commission decision to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol.

She tweeted: “I have just spoken with the Irish Govt to raise my very serious concerns in relation to the invoking of Art. 16.

“This is a totally ill judged move by the EU and should not have been triggered. Calm heads need to prevail, this needs sorted urgently.”

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said: “We are working with the EU Commission to try to resolve this issue and protect the integrity and operation of the NI Protocol.”

What is the Northern Ireland protocol?

The Northern Ireland protocol is the agreement between the EU and the UK over the future of Northern Ireland post Brexit.

The agreement meant Northern Ireland has effectively stayed in the Customs Union while the other three countries of the UK have left, creating a border down the Irish Sea.

The new arrangement has created problems for many businesses as they try and figure out the new rules where economically Northern Ireland feels tied to the EU but politically, legally and socially it is part of the UK.

Within the agreement are various agreements over what to do in case of a dispute or issues arises around imports and exports.

Article 16 is one of these provisions which allows one party to limit exports and imports if "serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade."