Have the UK and EU avoided a Covid vaccine war?

European Commission reverses threat to impose border checks in Ireland - but is still short of doses

European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen wearing a face mask.
(Image credit: Francisco Seco/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

So what happened on Friday evening? Political pundits are still scratching their heads after the EU was and then wasn’t set to control Covid vaccine exports to Ireland, before describing any threat to do so an “oversight”.

Although the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement guarantees an open border between the EU and Northern Ireland, with no controls on exported products, Article 16 of the deal acts as a get-out clause if the protocol could lead to serious “economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.

But with the bloc’s coronavirus jabs shortage causing increasing hostility between member states and the European Commission, the threat of invoking the article was the first serious escalation in a potential vaccines war between the UK and the EU27.

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The sudden threat to invoke Article 16 to impose border checks on vaccines on the island of Ireland triggered “swift” condemnation and a “flurry of calls between UK and EU leaders”, Sky News reports.

Boris Johnson expressed “grave concerns” over the bloc’s plan to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, according to a spokesperson for the prime minister.

Johnson also called his Irish counterpart Micheal Martin, who publicly questioned the move, while Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster criticised the EU’s “incredible act of hostility”, in a rare show of unity between Downing Street, Dublin and Belfast.

The European Commission subsequently fully reversed the decision to trigger the Article 16 emergency provision.

But the row marks “the latest development in a deepening dispute over delays to the production and distribution of Covid vaccines across the EU”, the BBC reports.

“Mistake”, “misjudgement” and “blunder” are just some of the words being used by EU insiders to describe Friday’s drama, writes BBC Europe editor Katya Adler.

“Brussels previously lectured the UK government about respecting the Irish Protocol - which was painfully and carefully drafted during Brexit negotiations,” she says.

“Although it then U-turned on those plans, critics say the damage was already done.”

What now?

Late on Friday evening, following talks with Johnson, von der Leyen tweeted that the UK and EU had “agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities”.

The EU has also moved behind the scenes to “assure Britain that vaccine exports into the country won’t be stopped by the bloc’s new trade restrictions”, Politico reports.

However, restrictions have been enacted that give “EU member states and the Commission the ability to block vaccine shipments from companies that also have contracts to supply the EU”, the Financial Times (FT) adds.

Although the Article 16 threat has been brushed under the carpet, the decision to move ahead with these other measures has drawn criticism from allied countries including Canada, Japan and South Korea. The controls will affect a total of around 100 countries worldwide, including the UK, the US and Australia.

An EU source told the FT that despite requiring manufacturers to request permission before shipping Covid jabs outside of the bloc, “we will work hard to avoid any knock-on effects on our partners and we remain committed to open markets to avoid any disruption of supply chains”.

Not everybody is feeling reassured though. World Health Organization vice-head Mariangela Simao told journalists on Friday that the restrictions are part of a “very worrying trend”.

Canadian Trade Minister Mary Ng has spoken to EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis to stress the need for an “open and resilient” supply chain, a spokesperson said.

And Taro Kono, the minister in charge of Japan’s pandemic response, told the World Economic Forum on Friday that while it is “understandable” that the EU would “put their own people first”, “we are living on the same planet, and the supply chain now goes global”.

Impatience grows

Von der Leyen tweeted yesterday that AstraZeneca plans to deliver 40 million jabs to EU countries by the end of March. But as Politico’s Brussels Playbook notes, that will still leave the bloc “with tens of millions fewer doses than expected”.

Peter Tiede, the chief political reporter for German tabloid Bild, says that the vaccine rollout is the “biggest confidence-destroying programme” in the EU’s history.

“Brussels and the governments of the EU states have managed to confirm the old prejudice of a sluggish Europe”, Tiede writes on an article for The Times. Von der Leyen is “whistling loudly in the dark and thus damaging even further any confidence in her ability to run the EU”, he adds.

During an interview on German television on Sunday, the European Commission boss insisted the vaccination effort was not a competition, saying: “The only race that we’re in is the race against the virus and against time.”

The EU is a famously slow-moving beast, as British negotiators learned during four years of Brexit talks. But von der Leyen’s call to take that same approach with the vaccine campaign threatens to further stoke anger among the EU’s member states.

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Joe Evans is the world news editor at TheWeek.co.uk. He joined the team in 2019 and held roles including deputy news editor and acting news editor before moving into his current position in early 2021. He is a regular panellist on The Week Unwrapped podcast, discussing politics and foreign affairs. 

Before joining The Week, he worked as a freelance journalist covering the UK and Ireland for German newspapers and magazines. A series of features on Brexit and the Irish border got him nominated for the Hostwriter Prize in 2019. Prior to settling down in London, he lived and worked in Cambodia, where he ran communications for a non-governmental organisation and worked as a journalist covering Southeast Asia. He has a master’s degree in journalism from City, University of London, and before that studied English Literature at the University of Manchester.