EU U-turns on blocking Covid vaccine exports to Northern Ireland - What does it mean for Brexit and what is Article 16?

  • Video report by ITV News Reporter Nitya Rajan

The European Union has backtracked on plans to temporarily block vaccines from being exported to Northern Ireland by triggering a protocol in the Brexit agreement.

The bloc tried to stop Covid-19 vaccine exports to the nation as part of its clampdown on jabs leaving its borders. It did so by trying to invoke Article 16 of Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

The European Union (EU) is facing a vaccine shortage. It has been embroiled in a spat with AstraZeneca after the vaccine developer said it would not be able to meet its supply targets for the first three months of 2021.

What is Article 16 of Brexit's Northern Ireland Protocol?

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

It means Northern Ireland stayed in the Customs Union while the other three nations of the UK left.

It 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 protocol 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."

What happened to make the EU backtrack on Article 16?

The EU's plans to invoke Article 16 led to condemnation by politicians in London, Dublin and Belfast, forcing an embarrassing U-turn from the European Commission, which claimed the incident had been an “oversight.”

Neither the Boris Johnson or the Irish Taoiseach was informed of Brussels’ intention to invoke Article 16 of the protocol ahead of time, it has been understood.

Before the U-turn, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told EU Commission president Ursula Von Der Leyen he had "grave concerns" over the move.

Stormont First Minister Mrs Foster had said the bloc was "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".

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill also tweeted that the move was "totally ill judged".

Taoiseach Micheal Martin held multiple phone calls with Ms von der Leyen on Friday night in a bid to resolve the issue.

In a statement late on Friday, the Commission said it is “not triggering the safeguard clause” to ensure the Northern Ireland Protocol is “unaffected” after widespread condemnation of its move as part of its export controls on coronavirus vaccines.

The statement read: “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 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 to be abused to circumvent the effects of the authorisation system, the EU will consider all using all the instruments at its disposal.”

Taoiseach Micheal Martin 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.”

What is the significance of the EU backtracking on Article 16? What does it mean for the future of the bloc?

It suggests Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol cannot be easily invoked. It will be difficult for anyone in the future to attempt to stop or limit exports and imports between the EU and Northern Ireland.

Responding to the EU's U-turn, Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney tweeted: “Welcome news, but lessons should be learned; the Protocol is not something to be tampered with lightly, it’s an essential, hard won compromise, protecting peace & trade for many.”

However, he told BBC Newsnight that he believed the EU would still be prepared to invoke Article 16 in the future.

He said: “What the EU did, in implementing Article 16 and overriding parts of the protocol, this whole approach to Northern Ireland has been based on a hypocrisy and a falsehood over a number of years.

“They were prepared, and they still are, to reserve the position that they will in the future if necessary, invoke Article 16 in order to create a hard border in the island of Ireland, for vaccines to help people get through a pandemic.

“It’s outrageous. It is a hostile act, as the DUP leader has said, and it exposes the entire hypocrisy of the Northern Ireland Protocol.”