U.K.’s Gove Attacks EU After Northern Ireland Vaccine Row

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U.K. Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove attacked the European Union for risking peace in Northern Ireland after the bloc tried to impose export controls on vaccines to the region and sparked a major diplomatic row.

Gove said the bloc owed member states a fuller explanation of why it briefly tried to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol -- a move that threatened to revive the prospect of border checks on the island of Ireland. The EU backtracked on its threat within hours.

“Article 16 isn’t there to ensure the EU’s vaccine procurement program can be salvaged,” Gove told a committee of MPs on Monday. “That is completely inappropriate.”

Gove expressed concern that the EU may invoke Article 16 in the future and called for a reset in the EU’s relationship with the U.K.

“There needs to be a realization on all sides that this isn’t some arcane bit of diplomatic procedure,” he said. “This has real consequences on the ground.”

Unlike the rest of the U.K., Northern Ireland effectively remained in the EU’s customs union and single market after Brexit -- a concession Boris Johnson made to the bloc in order to secure Britain’s orderly departure. The result has been goods crossing the Irish Sea have been subject to checks and delays.

Gove will hold talks with European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic on Thursday as the two sides try to restore relations and ease delays on goods crossing from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.

Gove said the protocol is “not working” and called on the EU to extend various grace periods covering trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.

“There are specific issues that relate to the free movement of goods within the U.K.,” he said. “My principal concern is resolving these issues on the ground.”

If those issues can’t be resolved, Gove said, the government has to “reserve its rights.”

Last week, Johnson threatened to invoke Article 16 to ensure the free flow of goods within the U.K.

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