In the space of a little over four hours on Friday evening, the European Union has achieved the impossible: uniting against it the five parties of Northern Ireland, the Irish government and the British government. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the Church of England, has expressed his anger. For the time of a blunder, Brussels has rekindled the fuse of North Irish tensions, already heated white during more than four years of Brexit negotiations.
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The case concerns vaccines against Covid-19. For a week, the European Commission has been furious with the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. He has a problem in his Belgian factory and warned that he was not able to provide the vaccines promised immediately. However, it continues to supply the UK with no problem. Explanation: the British government ordered the laboratory in May 2020, three months before the Europeans, and Astrazeneca is therefore giving it priority.
Stung, Brussels decided to retaliate. In particular, all vaccines produced in the EU will now need to obtain an export permit if they are destined for a third country. And, to everyone’s surprise, the Commission has decided to put the Irish land border issue back on the table. Since vaccines can no longer leave European territory without authorization, checks will also be carried out between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
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After the very tense Brexit negotiations, it was a real provocation. The objective of recent years was precisely to avoid at all costs the reestablishment of an Irish land border, which would risk rekindling clashes between Unionists (who want to stay in the United Kingdom) and Republicans (who want unification). with the Republic of Ireland). For this, a protocol on Northern Ireland was signed at the end of 2019, which establishes the control of goods at the level of the ports between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The protocol includes a suspension clause, Article 16, which is supposed to be used as a last resort only, and only in the event of “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties which are to last”. Yet it is this article that the Commission invoked on Friday.
The decision, taken in a hurry, was made without consultation with the main stakeholders. In particular, the Irish government had not been notified. Furious, his prime minister, Micheal Martin, immediately made his opposition known. “It took four years to finalize this protocol!” he was still exasperated on Sunday. Michel Barnier, the European Brexit negotiator, who was also unaware, also called for the measure to be withdrawn. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, recalled that “controlling vaccine exports goes against basic EU ethics”. “The decision to trigger Article 16 was premature and provocative,” for his part lamented David Gauke, a former Conservative MP yet very opposed to Brexit and the government of Boris Johnson.
Finally, late Friday evening, the Commission turned back, abandoning its threat to use Article 16, and blaming obscure technocrats who did not understand the scope of their action.
But the matter does not end there. Arlene Foster, the Prime Minister of North Ireland, Unionist, immediately stepped up to try to question the entire protocol. Denouncing “an incredible hostile act” of the EU, she asks the British government to also trigger Article 16.
For her, this protocol is a betrayal. Since January 1, with the effective entry into force of Brexit, it has established a trade border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that is to say within the same country. Concretely, a supermarket sending goods from Birmingham to Belfast, for example, must now complete an export declaration, potentially accompanied by health documents in the case of food products. For Unionists, who believe that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom, this is an unacceptable blow to the integrity of their country.
Especially since companies are struggling to adapt. In supermarkets, some fresh produce shelves have been empty since the start of the year. “This protocol is not applicable, protests Arlene Foster. It must be replaced. ”
The revenge of the brexiters
Micheal Martin seems in part to agree, calling on the EU to show a little more flexibility in the application of the protocol, so that the traffic of goods is more fluid: “We have the opportunity to discuss again to make more flexible and efficient application of the protocol. “
Michelle O’Neill, the vice-president of Sinn Féin, the main Republican party, bitterly regrets the threat from the EU. “[Ça] gave the brexiters a stick to beat the protocol, which is unfortunate, because this protocol is absolutely necessary. “
After years of being on the defensive, the Brexiters are getting their revenge, because of a blunder of a few hours, by a Commission visibly panicked by the lack of vaccines. Arlene Foster takes advantage, pushing where it hurts: the protocol has caused “a lot of unease and tension in the community [nord-irlandaise]», She says. Exactly what he was supposed to avoid.