The European Union’s decision to suspend part of the Brexit agreement on Northern Ireland during the vaccine supply row was an “oversight”, the bloc’s ambassador to the UK has admitted.
The European Commission was forced into an embarrassing U-turn last week after facing intense criticism for attempting to hinder the free flow of Covid-19 vaccines across the Irish border using a legal clause called Article 16 in the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The decision on Friday came amid a furore over coronavirus vaccine supply in the bloc, with Brussels angered by AstraZeneca, the British-Swedish pharmaceutical firm, reducing the amount of the Oxford-designed inoculations it could deliver to the EU.
Senior European politicians conceded it was a mistake to try to unilaterally suspend part of the protocol to prevent Northern Ireland being used as a back door to move inoculations from the EU into the UK.
EU ambassador Joao Vale de Almeida told Sky News the bloc recognised Article 16 was only to be used as a “last resort”, adding: “The issue was an oversight, it was solved and it is no longer there, so let’s move on.”
The move caused consternation on both sides of the Irish Sea, angering Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein.
The protocol, which governs the movement of goods in and out of Northern Ireland post-Brexit, was created to ensure continued free flow of trade across the Irish border.
It does so by moving regulatory and customs processes to the Irish Sea, with checks focused primarily on produce moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove told MPs that Article 16 should only be invoked after every alternative had been “exhausted”.
Addressing the EU U-turn in the Commons on Tuesday, he said Brussels had sought to “stop vaccines being delivered through legally binding contracts at the height of a pandemic” and enacted “a unilateral suspension” of the protocol that the “EU has always maintained was critical to safeguarding the gains of the Northern Ireland peace process”.
“Article 16 exists for good reasons but is meant to be invoked only after notification, only after all other options are exhausted and in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland,” Mr Gove added.
In his broadcast interview, Mr Vale de Almeida said there was “no export ban” on vaccines leaving the EU but warned manufacturers that contractual promises must be delivered.
“If these companies export according to their contractual obligations and our own expectations in contracts are met, everything will be smooth and everybody will have access to the vaccines,” he said.