Perhaps realising that the Northern Ireland (NI) border does not need to become a battleground again, the European Commission made a screeching U-turn yesterday. Barely a month after the end of the UK’s transition out of the European Union (EU), Brussels caused a furious diplomatic row by triggering a Brexit deal clause and effectively creating a vaccine border between NI and the Republic. By evening, the decision was reversed.
Earlier this week the European Commission was vocally miffed that AstraZeneca could only deliver 25% of the 100m doses they had ordered by the end of March. Adding insult to injury, the vaccine makers refused to divert some of its UK orders to fulfil EU demand, suggesting the British-Swedish company is favouring one of its home countries. French President, Emmanuel Macron, also suggested that AstraZeneca were purposefully “over-delivering” doses to those outside of the EU.
The European Commission then announced yesterday that all vaccine suppliers would have to seek their authorisation to export the vaccines, triggering a Brexit clause. This was an attempt by the European Commission to stop more vaccines coming to the UK through the back door of NI. One of the things HM Government did manage to negotiate in the Brexit deal, however, was that no exports can be restricted between NI (which is still in the EU single market) and Great Britain.
After some public outcry Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Irish Taoiseach, Micheál Martin got on the phone to President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to sort it out. A No.10 spokesperson said they had a “constructive discussion” and that “the UK has legally-binding agreements with vaccine suppliers and it would not expect the EU, as a friend and ally, to do anything to disrupt the fulfilment of these contracts.”
In the end, Brussels backed down and said in a statement “The Commission is not triggering the safeguard clause.” In an attempt to save some face they also stated that “should transits of vaccines and active substances toward third countries be abused to circumvent the authorisation system, the EU will consider using all the instruments at its disposal.”
The whole thing will no doubt leave officials wary of any future tensions that vaccine supply may spark, particularly with the EU. To its credit, the UK Government has arguably been the best in Europe at ordering huge amounts of effective vaccines in a timely manner. Just yesterday 90 million doses of two successfully-passed-the-trials vaccines were ordered, Novavax and Johnson & Johnson, bringing the total of doses up to 247 million.
Although the vaccines will not be ready for use until summer, some are already calling for the UK to share their supply, namely with the EU, considering stopping COVID-19 is a shared goal. We can expect vaccine diplomacy to be an emerging and continuous theme as nations fight to tackle the pandemic and public pressure to secure enough vaccines mounts.
WHAT ARE COMPANIES SAYING?