EU Reopens Brexit Wounds With Irish Border Vaccine Curbs

Less than a month after the U.K.’s deal with the European Union took effect, the bloc considered invoking its emergency clause as part of its plan to control the export of Covid-19 vaccines and tempers have flared.

The EU’s action may tamper with one of the most sensitive part of a divorce deal that took 3 1/2 years of painful negotiation: The Irish border. By ushering in temporary export vaccine controls between the EU and Northern Ireland, it would stop doses produced in the bloc arriving in mainland Britain via Belfast.

It’s highly sensitive because making sure there were no checks at a border that had known decades of violence was something all sides had agreed on. Any hint that it could be messed with could unsettle a delicate political balance -- and in fact, drew immediate scrutiny.

Under its draft plan due to take effect on Saturday, the EU unilaterally put into play article 16 of the Irish agreement “due to a lack of supply threatening to disturb the orderly implementation of the vaccination campaigns in the member states.”

Good Friday

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office said in a statement that he was looking for urgent clarification and that the “U.K. 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 fulfillment of these contracts.”

He reiterated the importance of preserving the benefits of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement peace deal. He also spoke to his Irish counterpart to set out his concerns with a response from European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen expected late on Friday.

The EU is working on a solution, according to a person familiar with the matter. Its concern is to stop Northern Ireland being used as a vaccine backdoor.

The move shouldn’t affect Northern Ireland’s access to the shots -- because it gets them from U.K. supplies -- but it has stakeholders worried. Northern Ireland businesses were already having difficulties importing goods from Great Britain since Brexit took effect on Jan. 1.

Earlier, a U.K. government spokesperson said that U.K. Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove had spoken to Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic “to express the U.K.’s concern over a lack of notification from the EU about its actions,” adding that the U.K. would “now be carefully considering next steps.”

The European Commission’s decision will oblige drug companies to obtain prior authorization before sending shots manufactured in the EU to other countries. Under the time-limited measures, vaccines will only be allowed to leave if the amount doesn’t threaten agreed deliveries in the bloc.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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