The European Commission has taken an extraordinary step. It has invoked Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which allows the Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland to be unilaterally overridden, in order to place controls on the export of vaccines made in the EU into Northern Ireland.
It has been done as a “safeguard measure”, the EU says, “in order to avert serious societal difficulties due to a lack of supply threatening to disturb the orderly implementation of the vaccination campaigns in the Member States”. It is, in other words, a retaliatory move in response to concerns about delivery shortfalls of the vaccine to the EU by the partially UK-based vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca.
What does it mean? First, it probably doesn’t mean that the supply of vaccines to NI will be disrupted. That’s the analysis of BBC Northern Ireland’s economics and business editor, in my view one of the best authorities on Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland, and it is also an assurance given by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis. Northern Ireland receives its vaccines as part of the UK’s procurement system, so restrictions on imports of the vaccine from the EU into Northern Ireland shouldn’t, in theory, make a difference.
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But beyond that, we don’t really know what it means. By invoking the right to override the special Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland, it could mean the imposition of checks on goods moving over the border between the Republic of Ireland (in the EU) and Northern Ireland (in the UK). It could, in other words, mean the introduction of a hard border on the island of Ireland, the scenario the protocol is designed to avoid.
This is already what Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Arlene Foster, has accused the EU of doing, urging the Prime Minister in turn to use the provisions in Article 16 to respond in kind: the UK could use Article 16 itself, to stop honouring its own commitments to certain checks in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. You might recall that some DUP politicians called on the British government to do this weeks ago, in response to shortages of certain foods and disruption to trade to NI when the transition period ended on 1 January. The government rejected the suggestion, saying that such a move should be a last report, given how inflammatory it would be.
That brings us to the most important point. Triggering Article 16 of the protocol barely a month into the future relationship between the UK and EU, and over a dispute over coronavirus vaccine supply chains, is a hugely inflammatory move. Not only have the British government and the expected unionists in Northern Ireland voiced their alarm, but so too have nationalist politicians, the Labour Party, and, now, the Irish government, which appears to have been kept in the dark over the European Commission’s actions.
Only a few months ago, the EU occupied the moral high ground over plans for the Irish border. While the UK government threatened to override parts of the protocol and break international law, the EU wasn’t just making the case for the UK honouring its treaty obligations, but making the moral case for maintaining the trade conditions that guarantee peace on the island of Ireland.
Indeed, it released a statement reaffirming the moral underpinning of the protocol: “The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is an essential part of the Withdrawal Agreement. Its aim is to protect peace and stability on the island of Ireland.”
Less than a month in, however, the European Commission has overridden these once vital measures, using broadly the same arguments that it criticised from the UK several months ago. On a human level, it means that this evening people in Northern Ireland are wondering whether or not the EU’s actions will mean they can’t get a vaccine, while they and people over the border in the Republic wonder if it means the worst-case scenario: the reimposition of a border that was the focal point of so much violence in Ireland’s recent history.
Brexiteers used to accuse the EU of using the border issue in bad faith, feigning a stake in the peace process when it was really using the issue for negotiation leverage. Suddenly, the EU has conceded the point: after years of making the case for these provisions, and their importance for peace and stability on the island of Ireland, it itself has reneged on them to widespread outcry.
We don’t know yet what its ramifications will be in practice. But the principle is conceded: the EU has surrendered the moral high ground over the Irish border.