The European Commission yesterday backtracked and admitted it had made an error in suggesting it might institute border controls between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to stop vaccines moving from the Republic to the UK.
The proposal was one step in the ongoing dispute involving the Commission, the post-Brexit UK and AstraZeneca (AZ), producer of a vaccine against Covid-19.
The AZ vaccine was provisionally approved by the EU’s medicines agency on Friday, but before that had even happened the company and the Commission were embroiled in a dispute over AZ’s failure to provide the promised number of doses in the first quarter.
Put briefly, AZ claims production problems at its plant in Belgium mean it has to cut its deliveries in the first quarter by more than 60%. The Commission believes AZ is cutting its deliveries to the EU in order to sell the vaccines elsewhere, probably to the UK.
The plan to impose border checks in Ireland – the Republic remains in the EU while Northern Ireland, as part of the UK, is outside – was imagined as a way to catch deliveries to the UK that were using a roundabout route to avoid being detected.
However the very mention of such a thing goes against one of the principles on which the whole Brexit agreement with the UK is based – no border between the two parts of Ireland – as well as the Good Friday Agreement than finally brought peace to the province after 30 years of violent dispute.
And the suggestion brought a stern and swift reply from both British prime minister Boris Johnson and Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin, speaking with one voice to tell Commission president Ursula von der Leyen the suggestion was a very bad idea indeed.
The suggestion was also sternly opposed by the Ulster Unionist DUP and Irish republicans Sinn Féin – normally mortal enemies – as well as no less a figure than the Archbishop of Canterbury.
On Twitter, Von der Leyen posted what in diplomatic terms counts as a fulsome apology:
“I spoke to Taoiseach Micheál Martin this evening to agree on a satisfactory way to introduce an export authorisation mechanism for COVID vaccines.”
I spoke to Taoiseach @MichealMartinTD this evening to agree on a satisfactory way to introduce an export authorisation mechanism for COVID vaccines.
And in another tweet: “Constructive talks with Prime Minister @BorisJohnson tonight. We agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities.”
However, while on diplomatic blunder may have been glossed over, the underlying dispute over vaccine deliveries remains.