EU officials have confessed to a “blunder” in invoking Northern Ireland Brexit emergency powers during a showdown with Britain over vaccines.
London says it now expects its supply of COVID-19 shots won’t be interrupted.
The European Union has fallen far behind Britain and the United States in the race to vaccinate its public. It announced on Friday it would impose export controls on vaccines, widely seen as a threat to prevent doses from being sent to Britain.
But it was forced to reverse part of the announcement within hours, after both Britain and Ireland complained about plans to impose emergency controls across the land border between Ireland and British-ruled Northern Ireland.
“They have recognised they have made a mistake and I believe we can now concentrate on making sure our vaccine program is successful,” British cabinet minister Michael Gove told Sky News on Saturday.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted: “I was reassured the EU has no desire to block suppliers fulfilling contracts for vaccine distribution to the UK.”
“The world is watching and it is only through international collaboration that we will beat this pandemic.”
EU officials acknowledged the decision to invoke emergency powers had been a mistake. Preventing controls at the border was the central issue in five years of Brexit negotiations.
“It’s a lot better to realise early on that something might be a problem and to change it, than to stick to your guns and dig a hole for yourself,” an EU official said on Saturday.
“As soon as it became apparent that there would be a political difficulty and sensitivity there, in particular on the Irish and Northern Irish side, we decided to take it out.”
Another EU official called the drama “simply and plainly a blunder”.
Politicians in the EU are under intense pressure to explain why their countries have managed just a fraction of the vaccinations achieved in Britain, which left the single market four weeks ago.
EU officials were furious earlier this month when British-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca announced most of the vaccine doses it had promised to deliver to the EU by March would be delayed because of production problems in Belgium.
AstraZeneca has been making millions of doses in Britain but it told the EU it could not divert any to the continent until it fulfils a contract with London.
Meanwhile, Britain has been importing EU-made doses of a separate vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech.
Ireland’s European Affairs Minister, Thomas Byrne, said Dublin had not been consulted on the imposition of restrictions.
“This type of provision is standard in trade agreements but in the Northern Ireland situation, it obviously has a different political resonance and it’s perhaps the case that this wasn’t fully appreciated by the drafters,” he told Newstalk radio.
“Clearly a mistake was made.”