The European Union’s threat to impose a vaccine border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland risks reigniting one of Brexit’s bitterest disputes. The EU has introduced checks on vaccines made in the bloc, being exported to the UK after the Brexit amid the supply shortfall. While the post-Brexit-deal seeks no restrictions on exports to Northern Ireland, the EU feared that the shipments might be exported directly into the UK via NI as the backdoor, and hence, the bloc resorted to prevent the vaccine supply from entering into Northern Ireland by invoking the Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Despite that the Brexit deal guarantees open trade and borders with Northern Ireland, the EU suspended the deal’s article 16 citing ‘economic, societal or environmental difficulties’, exercising the export controls to the NI, eventually into the UK. However, the EU’s threat to stop vaccines crossing freely from the EU to NI was later swiftly withdrawn after it set off a diplomatic crisis between Ireland, the EU and the UK. But the threat reopened the toxic political row over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit status.
The vaccine export row escalated on Saturday after Northern Ireland’s first minister and Democratic Unionist party leader, Arlene Foster, called for the entire deal affecting the region to be redrawn. According to The Guardian, Foster said that the protocol was proving to be “unworkable” and that serious problems had emerged with trade between NI and Great Britain. Theresa Villiers, who the former NI secretary, also said that it is vital that the government uses this is an opportunity to talk quite toughly with the EU about how the northern Ireland protocol is working.
While called EU’s decision a “massive misjudgement”, Villiers said that this is an important time to point out some the other really serious defects in how it is approaching NI. She added that she certainly want the protocol to be a temporary arrangement, but she also added that the leaders can now turn it into something that is broadly workable. Moreover, David Jones, a former Tory cabinet minister, also said that the “protocol must go”. He added that the EU has shown how ready they are to weaponise it, even with no provocation, in a fit of spite.
Now, the compromise eventually agreed between the EU and Dublin exempts vaccine manufacturers from seeking authorisation for doses crossing the border to Northern Ireland, avoiding claims of erecting a vaccine border in Ireland. Instead, the Irish government will be required to report on the number of doses distributed to Northern Ireland in a sign that the commission remains concerned that it could be a backdoor route for the movement of vaccines to the rest of the UK. The EU officials had said that they also got suspicions that certain vaccinations are leaving Europe, so the bloc has put in place this mechanism to check. The EU holds manufacturers to account, with vaccine shortages being reported across the bloc.