Tensions over the EU coronavirus vaccine roll-out reached boiling point last week after the European Commission enacted part of the Northern Ireland Protocol as a means of preventing the export of jabs from the bloc.
The debacle stemmed from a disagreement between EU leaders and the UK-Swedish drugs manufacturer AstraZeneca, who manufacture the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine.
A fall out between the pair arose when it was discovered that the UK was continuing to receive stock of the vaccine produced within the UK. Meanwhile, the EU was suffering a shortfall, and called foul on the move.
Despite having signed an agreement for 300 million COVID-19 jabs, AstraZeneca told the EU that supply problems at some of its European manufacturing plants meant that operations would be cut to 60% of capacity, a deal that the EU said wasn’t fair.
In a bid to hoard its precious supply of coronavirus vaccine doses, the EU has made two moves: introducing export controls on vaccines from the bloc and enacting the little-known Article 16, which forms part of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The pair met for lengthy discussions, which AstraZeneca later walked away from, after European leaders argued the firm had failed to meet the contract they had signed.
In response, the EU suggested that some of their supply come from the UK, something the UK Government was not happy with, and moved quickly to defend.
To export, or not to export?
The new European export controls will apply to those looking to move vaccines out of the bloc of 27 member states.
In the event that manufacturers appear to not to be meeting their contractual obligations to supply the jabs, member states can block their export.
There are exceptions, however, with Switzerland, Norway and Northern Africa still receiving EU-produced inoculations. The international Covavax programme – which sees vaccines delivered to countries in the global south – are also exempt.
The EU has continued to reiterate that the move is not a permanent ban, but a temporary control measure whilst supplies are delivered to member states.
In a bid to further mid to stem the exodus of jabs from inside the EU, the Commission also enacted – and later withdrew – Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The protocol forms part of the UK and EU’s post-Brexit trading agreements, specifically in regard to the Ireland-Northern Ireland border. The protocol allows goods to move from one to the other without checks or physical checkpoints.
Article 16 permits the agreement to be suspended by one side, or the other – in essence allowing checks and physical border inspections – but only in times of “economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.
Given the precarious situation the EU finds itself in regarding vaccines, EU leaders took the decision to ensure that vaccines could not be exported to the UK by way of a backdoor through Northern Ireland.
Arlene Foster, the Northern Ireland First Minister described the move as “an incredibly hostile act”.
The decision has since been reversed, in what the Irish Commissioner to the EU, Mairead McGuinness, said was a “mistake with very serious consequences”.
EU leaders are feeling the strain over the rollout of the COVID vaccine on the continent.
Whilst the UK has delivered the first of two coronavirus jabs to more than seven million people nationwide, the EU is lagging behind.
By January 29, according to Our World In Data, 3 vaccines had been delivered per 100 people in Germany, versus the UK’s 14. Israel is currently leading the way worldwide; 54 jabs have been issued per 100 people.
The EU is facing anti-vaccine backlash, too.
France is notably vaccine-sceptic, with French president Emmanuel Macron having suggested the vaccine “doesn’t work as expected” in those over the age of 65. Just over 1 million people in France had received at least one dose by January 26.
Whilst the Article 16 incident is likely to have only encouraged mistrust in EU leadership, the likes of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will now be under pressure to ensure the swift and effective rollout of the vaccine across the bloc.
On Monday morning (Feb 1), von der Leyen announced that there had been a “step forward” between politicians and drugs manufacturers, with AstraZeneca agreeing to supply a further nine million doses to the EU. This deal, however, still only sees a supply of less than half the expected doses.twitter Follow @gairrhyddpol for all of the latest updates from the world of politics. Politics Morgan Perry