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23rd Jan 2022

Commission blames Irish border cock-up on trade chief

  • EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has come under fire for the perceived slow vaccine roll-out in the EU and a row with pharmacutical company AstraZeneca (Photo: European Parliament)

The EU Commission sought to shield its president, Ursula von der Leyen on Monday (1 February) from the fallout of the embarrassing U-turn at the weekend, over the new vaccine export control procedure.

The commission in its lunchtime briefing pointed at one of its executive vice-presidents, Valdis Dombrovkis, in charge of trade, and his service, as the ones responsible for the politically charged cock-up.

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"There is one cabinet which was in the lead on this, executive vice president Dombrovskis, because he is in charge of trade, and this regulation falls under the responsibility of vice president Dombrovskis, his cabinet and services that answer to him," commission spokesman Eric Mamer told reporters.

The commission caused uproar in Ireland and the UK on Friday when in a rush to agree on a new regulation that would control vaccine exports from the EU, the bloc's executive triggered a clause in the Brexit divorce deal, in order to potentialy restrict exports to Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland.

The border issue is hugely sensitive on the island of Ireland, and during the withdrawal negotiations, the EU was very committed to keeping the border free and open, to minimise any possibility of sectarian flare-up there.

Northern Ireland first minister Arlene Foster from the unionist DUP party said the move was "an absolutely incredible act of hostility".

Ireland's foreign minister Simon Coveney warned in a tweet that: "The [Northern Ireland] Protocol is not something to be tampered with lightly, it's an essential, hard-won compromise, protecting peace and trade for many."

The commission pulled the regulation's text from its website late on Friday evening, after von der Leyen had talked with Irish prime minister Micheal Martin and UK premier Boris Johnson, before announcing a U-turn on triggering the Article 16 measures.

However, the blunder created the impression that the EU was too quick to invoke the protocol, on an emergency matter not directly related to Brexit, which it had spent months previously building during the negotiations with the UK.

The commission spokesman on Monday insisted that the executive's final decision did not include triggering Article 16, and that it was only part of the "decision in principle" in the afternoon, not the final decision at night.

However, the issue has raised concerns in Brussels and some domestic capitals that von der Leyen is only relying on a close and closed circle of mainly German advisors, and are shutting out veteran commission policy-makers from the processes.

Laying the blame on the trade services in the commission is also curious - as the department is headed by Sabine Weyand, one of the key architects of the Brexit withdrawal deal, who knows its details and sensibilities.

Over the weekend, Irish commissioner for financial services Mairead McGuinness said the EU has made a mistake, but it has been rectified.

She said she was unaware of the triggering of the clause and was not consulted, she told RTE radio.

McGuinness said the commission had failed to carry out "normal and proper scrutiny," - but she also defended von der Leyen.

The new measures, rolled out by Dombrovskis on Friday, oblige drug firms to obtain authorisation before they can export vaccines manufactured in the EU to other countries.

The German head of the commission has come under fire during January for the EU's perceived slow roll-out of the vaccines and its recent fight with pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.

"Only the pope is infallible," Mamer said on Monday, in defence of the commission president.

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