Ursula von der Leyen has promised Boris Johnson that future EU controls on vaccines will not disrupt contracted deliveries of the Belgium-made BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine to Great Britain.
The President of the European Commission made the commitment to the Prime Minister in a tense Friday evening appeal, which followed the Commission’s controversial plan – hastily abandoned – to impose emergency border controls on vaccines entering Northern Ireland from the EU.
Ms. von der Leyen tweeted that the talks with Mr. Johnson had been “constructive” and added, “We agreed on the principle that there should be no restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies fulfilling contractual responsibilities.”
Mr. Johnson’s allies confirmed that this included the 40 million doses that Pfizer has contracted to supply Britain from a factory in Belgium. The Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The elimination of the implicit threat to Pfizer’s exports and the abandonment of the proposal to include Northern Ireland in new export controls has eased tension between London and Brussels.
Mr. Johnson this week tried to avoid sparking tension and sparking a vaccine war that he believes would harm both sides and hinder the global fight against Covid-19.
“The call was fine, hopefully that will be the end,” said an ally of the prime minister. “We don’t intend to dwell on it.”
But Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s prime minister, on Saturday called on Mr Johnson to follow Brussels’ lead and set aside part of the Brexit deal to ease the flow of goods between GB and NI.
Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol contains a “safeguard clause” overriding the agreement which is intended to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland. It includes controls on GB / NI trade.
The European Commission said it would rely on Article 16 to justify its original plan to impose export controls on vaccines on Northern Ireland, even though the region remains part of the EU’s single market for goods.
It cited the risk of “serious social problems” in the EU if the bloc were unable to deploy enough vaccines for its own citizens.
Julian Smith, former Northern Ireland secretary, said the EU has “pulled the emergency cord” without following the proper processes agreed upon over the years of negotiations.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today program that the move came “without the level of understanding of the Good Friday Agreement, of the sensitivities of the situation in Northern Ireland”.
“It was an almost Trumpian act – I am very glad they changed their minds,” he said.
The Commission has since republished its control measures for the dispatch of vaccines, removing the proposals from Article 16.
Cabinet Minister Michael Gove said he had spoken with Maros Sefcovic, Vice-President of the European Commission and Co-Chair of the EU-UK Joint Committee.
“Our shared priority is to ensure that the protocol works for the people of Northern Ireland, to protect the achievements of the peace process and to avoid disruptions to everyday life. Jointly committed to doubling down on our efforts to address outstanding issues, ”they both tweeted from their individual Twitter accounts.
Speaking to Sky News, Mr Gove said it had been made clear that the vaccination supply would not be interrupted, “so that we can proceed with our plans and ensure that our so far very successful vaccination program can continue.
“I think the European Union recognizes that they made a mistake in activating Article 16, which would have meant another border would have been set on the island of Ireland.”
In an interview with the Sunday TelegraphVaccine Minister Nadhim Zahawi said he was “confident” of vaccine deliveries through March and said UK-EU cooperation would be key to fighting the virus.
“I don’t think this is a Brexit issue. This is about making sure we protect the most vulnerable. In many ways it is a race against death, ”he told the newspaper.
The export restrictions had been criticized by business groups, including the International Chamber of Commerce, which warned they could lead to retaliation from other countries and have a devastating impact on global vaccine supplies.
It has also emerged that Belgium, a major site for vaccine production in the EU, has notified the Commission of a draft public health law that would give it new powers to restrict the export of medicines.
The proposed legislation would allow the Belgian authorities to restrict or prohibit the shipment of critical medicines and active ingredients in case of shortages or potential shortages.
A spokesperson for Frank Vandenbroucke, the Belgian health minister, said the report to the committee was not related to the export of vaccines or uncertainties about the delivery of injections.
The bill was intended to “establish a future legislative framework to manage pandemics more efficiently,” he added.