Tensions between the EU and Britain escalated sharply on Friday as the bloc raised the prospect of a ban on exports of vaccines to the UK, failing to tell London the plan could include border restrictions on the island of Ireland.
Brussels announced tighter export controls that could allow EU member states to block sales abroad of vaccines to countries including the UK, US and Japan.
In an incendiary move, the European Commission said the controls would apply to trade from the Irish Republic into Northern Ireland, in effect creating the border that Brexit negotiations had intended to avoid.
Politicians in Dublin, London and Belfast expressed alarm over Brussels’ decision to trigger an override mechanism in the Northern Ireland protocol to the Brexit treaty — just weeks after the UK’s departure from the single market.
Irish prime minister Micheál Martin on Friday evening raised the matter directly with Brussels. “We are aware of the issue and the taoiseach is currently in discussions with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to raise concerns about this,” said a spokesman for the Irish government.
Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, called commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic to express concern over a lack of notification from the EU. He said the UK was “considering its next steps”.
Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first minister, condemned the move as an “incredible act of hostility”. Brussels had “at the first opportunity” placed a hard border between the region and the Irish Republic over a vaccine supply chain, she said.
The commission said the measure was justified to “avert serious societal difficulties”, as a lack of supply of jabs “threatened to disturb the orderly implementation” of vaccination campaigns in EU member states.
The new EU export rules do not explicitly target the UK but the language used echoes Brussels’ concerns that vaccines made in the European bloc have been shipped across the Channel — and could be again.
The new regulations refer to EU delivery shortfalls by “certain vaccine manufacturers” — an apparent reference to the spat between AstraZeneca and the commission, where officials have questioned whether supplies have been sent to the UK.
“There is a risk that vaccines produced in the Union are exported from the Union, in particular to non-vulnerable countries,” the rules say. “Such a potential breach of contractual commitments made by the pharmaceutical industries carries the risk of shortages and therefore delays within the Union.”
Criticism of the move in Northern Ireland crossed the political spectrum, with Colum Eastwood, leader of the Social Democratic & Labour party moderate Irish nationalists, saying the decision was “disproportionate and a grave error in judgment” by the commission.
The EU wants AstraZeneca to divert production from its UK plants to make up for an expected shortfall of deliveries to the bloc and on Friday published details of its contract with the UK-headquartered company.
The document — with many portions redacted — states the company must use its “best reasonable efforts” to manufacture 300m vaccine doses for the EU, with an option for 100m more.
But Boris Johnson remains convinced the UK’s contract with AstraZeneca — signed last June, three months before the EU deal — is watertight and will guarantee that UK production is used to meet the company’s promise to deliver 100m doses.
Britain’s insistence that the company’s UK plants supply British citizens has been strongly criticised by EU politicians.
Didier Reynders, EU justice commissioner, said: “The EU has pushed to co-ordinate the vaccines contract on behalf of the 27 precisely to avoid a vaccines war between EU countries,” said Mr Reynders. “But maybe the UK wants to start a vaccine war.”
AstraZeneca’s jab was on Friday cleared for use in EU by the bloc’s medical regulator.
The European Medicines Agency said it backed the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab for all individuals aged 18 and over, even as Germany and France expressed concern over its effectiveness on those aged 65 and over.
Hours before the EMA decision, French president Emmanuel Macron said: “Today everything suggests that [the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine] is almost ineffective for those over 65, and some say over 60.”
And France on Friday tightened its coronavirus restrictions, closing its borders for arrivals from outside the EU from Sunday except for “essential reasons” and shutting shopping malls from the same day without imposing a full new lockdown on the country.
“Any entry to France or exit coming from or going to a country outside the EU will be forbidden, except for essential reasons, from Sunday at 00.00 [midnight Saturday],” said Jean Castex, prime minister.
Non-food shopping centres of more than 20,000 sq m would also be closed from Sunday, he said.
Mr Castex said “police officers and gendarmes would be mobilised to enforce compliance with the [6pm-6am] curfew, to stop secret parties and illegal restaurant openings. Controls will be reinforced.”
He added that the health situation in France was worrying, even if better than in some other countries. “We still have a chance to avoid a lockdown,” Mr Castex said, adding that the coming days would decide whether further measures were needed.