Call to replace Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol after EU tries to use Article 16 to block Covid vaccine exports

  • Video report by ITV News Political Reporter Shehab Khan

Boris Johnson is being called to replace the Northern Ireland Protocol after the European Union tried to use it to prevent vaccines from the bloc from entering the UK.

The EU, which is facing a vaccine shortage, on Friday threatened to use Article 16 of Brexit's Nothern Ireland Protocol to temporarily stop its vaccines from being exported to Northern Ireland. By the end of the day, it scrapped the plans after condemnation by politicians in London, Dublin and Belfast.

The protocol - which is part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement - sets out arrangements so Northern Ireland stays in the Customs Union while the rest of the UK have left. Article 16 allows one party to limit exports and imports if there are "serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties".

  • What does this U-turn mean for our relationship with the EU going forward? Shehab Khan explains

The UK Prime Minister is now being urged by First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster to replace the protocol.

The DUP leader said the EU's move was an “absolutely incredible act of hostility towards those of us in Northern Ireland”.

“It’s absolutely disgraceful, and I have to say the Prime Minister now needs to act very quickly to deal with the real trade flows that are being disrupted between Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday morning.

She also reiterated calls for Mr Johnson to invoke Article 16 over food shortages being faced in her nation because of Brexit.

First Minister Arlene Foster said the whole Executive was in agreement that a return to classes was the main priority Credit: Liam McBurney/PA

“We’ve been asking the PM to deal with the flow problems and indeed, since January 1, we’ve been trying to manage along with the Government the many, many difficulties that have arisen between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and there are actions he could take immediately,” she said.

“There is great unrest and great tension within the community here in Northern Ireland so this protocol that was meant to bring about peace and harmony in Northern Ireland is doing quite the reverse.

“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.”

Pressed on whether that would be in breach of an international treaty, she said: “Well it didn’t seem to bother the European Union yesterday when they breached the treaty in terms of their embarrassment around their vaccine procurement.”

The is currently 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.An EU source told PA news agency the move had been a “misjudgment”, as the European Commission backtracked to say it is “not triggering the safeguard clause” to ensure the protocol is “unaffected”.

Despite criticism from the World Health Organisation, the EU is pushing ahead with imposing controls on vaccines produced in the union. This could make it difficult for the UK to access the Belgian-made Pfizer jab.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, said she had agreed a “satisfactory way to introduce an export authorisation mechanism” for vaccines with Irish premier Michael Martin.

Ms von der Leyen said she had also held “constructive talks” with Mr Johnson, adding: “We agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities.”

But the EU continued to warn of further action, saying: “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.”

Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney said “lessons should be learned” and warned the protocol “is not something to be tampered with lightly, it’s an essential, hard-won compromise, protecting peace and trade for many”.

French President Emmanuel Macron backed the EU seeking to “control” vaccine exports as he raised questions about a lack of doses being delivered by Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca.

“It should be controlled because there is questionable behaviour and we will be receiving fewer deliveries that do not honour the contractual engagements agreed,” he said in an interview with media, including the Guardian.

Brussels has also demanded doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured in British plants to solve its supply shortage issues, as member states have been forced to pause or delay their rollouts.