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Monday, March 1, 2021

Irish commissioner: EU made serious ‘mistake’ in attempt to block vaccines across Irish border

Brussels made “a mistake with very serious consequences” when it initially moved to block vaccine exports across the Irish border by triggering an emergency provision of the Brexit withdrawal deal, Ireland’s EU Commissioner Mairead McGuinness said.

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The Commission’s move to override the so-called Northern Ireland protocol on Friday set off a firestorm with Dublin and London, partially nullifying the special border arrangement intended to preserve the Good Friday peace agreement. It also prompted some unionists in Northern Ireland to demand that the U.K. retaliate and move to torpedo the protocol on Northern Ireland altogether.

McGuinness told RTE Radio 1 Sunday evening that she was happy the Commission quickly reversed course and by Friday night had approved a revised export regulation dropping the provision on Northern Ireland. She said the EU executive had failed to carry out “normal and proper scrutiny,” but also strongly defended Ursula von der Leyen when pressed twice on whether the Commission president should resign over the incident.

“This was a mistake — other words have been used — it has had consequences,” said McGuinness, the EU commissioner for financial services. “We have seen very justified anger and the political fallout. Fortunately, I know it was at the 11th hour, but the mistake was rectified.”

McGuinness insisted she was unaware of the provision and not consulted about it.

A Commission spokesperson, however, said that as part of the emergency procedure to adopt the vaccine export regulation, all commissioners and their cabinets received copies of the text so that they could potentially raise objections. (McGuinness did not immediately respond Sunday night to a message seeking to clarify the sequence of events.)

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“It is absolutely true to say that the normal and proper scrutiny didn’t happen because what was intended to be a very technical regulation to, if you like, to get information transparency on the flows of vaccines, turned out to contain this very, very sensitive clause about Ireland,” McGuinness said.

“This wasn’t brought to my attention. But when it hit, if you like, the airwaves and everyone realized this was a problem, immediately the president, the services understood how serious this was and that clause was dropped. But there are obviously issues that we will address in the coming days and I put my hands up on behalf of the Commission. This has not been good for the European Commission,” she said.

McGuinness cited the EU’s anger at vaccine-maker AstraZeneca over a major production shortfall as a factor in the haste that led to the problematic provision.

“There was, you know, anger — justified anger about AstraZeneca,” she said.

Pressed on how the provision got adopted, McGuinness said, “It shouldn’t have happened, as I said at the very outset. This is a mistake with very serious consequences. So, there is no getting away from that and we will have to look this week to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

She added, “On the wider issue of how an issue as sensitive of Northern Ireland came into the equation, I am afraid the political reality of the paragraph wasn’t fully understood. It immediately was when the interventions came on my behalf and the Taoiseach [Irish prime minister] and many, many others.”

Asked twice if von der Leyen should resign over the matter, McGuinness strongly defended the president and praised her success in orchestrating a joint vaccine purchasing program among all 27 EU countries.

“I have to say she has been hugely courageous,” McGuinness said. “Because can you imagine if she had not stepped forward and pulled together the member states and the leaders?

“She has the expertise and she has the ability to deliver this,” McGuinness continued. “She expects criticism. I expect criticism. But I don’t expect that criticism for me to resile from my duties and she never has resiled from her duties. I have found her an incredibly able leader, but all of us make mistakes collectively and we have to work to address those mistakes. Can you imagine what would happen if, say if there was no overall agreement [on vaccine purchasing], where would Malta, a tiny member state be? Where would Ireland be?”

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(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by WCT staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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