Below are the responses in full from European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to questions posed by Irish Times Europe Correspondent Naomi O’Leary.
NOL: Now that the European Commission has shown itself willing to use article 16, seemingly quite casually, we expect opponents of the protocol to redouble their calls for the British government to override it and for this to continue for years to come whenever a problem arises. Do you understand the scale of the damage that has been done?
UVL: "Of course, I am fully aware of the sensitivity related to the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. I fought for this protocol and its implementation over the past year, and am determined to ensure it is upheld. Our sole aim in designing the export transparency and authorisation scheme is to achieve transparency on shipments of vaccines abroad, so as to make sure that this is not done to the detriment of expected deliveries in the EU.
The commission was looking for a solution that stems from the specific nature of Northern Ireland’s position in the single market but also as a part of the United Kingdom. It is in that context that initial consideration was given to the need to track deliveries to Northern Ireland specifically, since they can then leave the EU without further checks. This is how the discussion on invoking article 16 of the protocol arose.
“Ultimately, I am glad and relieved that in the final version of the mechanism we found a solution that does not require this. And I am grateful to the Taoiseach for the constructive exchange and his support to find this solution.”
Will you apologise?
"The final version of the regulation we have adopted does not include any reference to article 16. The consideration given to invoking article 16 was dropped before the decision was made final. So, despite the fact that I regret that article 16 was mentioned in a provisional version of the decision, I am glad that the commission was quick on its feet to find another solution to address the question at stake.
“We have certainly learned from last Friday’s events that we need to redouble our efforts and caution when we are working at speed.”
Why did no one call the leadership in Dublin, Belfast, or London before this regulation was briefed to journalists and released online?
"For the past 10 months, since March 2020, the whole college of commissioners has been working hand-in-hand on overcoming the pandemic. Quite often we did this under extreme time pressure. Since the start of the pandemic, the commission has taken almost 1,500 decisions responding to all the different dimensions of the pandemic, be they health, the economy, the free movement of goods and people across the single market, even the repatriation of EU citizens abroad, or the purchase of billions of doses of vaccines.
“Of those, almost 900 were adopted following urgency procedures to speed up decision-making, including the regulation we are discussing. It was the subject of much discussion over the week, at various levels and including many very experienced colleagues on this particular matter across services and cabinets. But still, I interacted with the Taoiseach before the finalisation of the procedure, for which I am very glad.”
The previous goal set out by the European Commission was for member states to vaccinate 70 per cent of the adult population by the summer. Given the new delivery schedules of pharmaceutical companies, what date is now a realistic target for 70 per cent vaccination?
"The target of 70 per cent of the adult population to be vaccinated by the end of the summer is of course very ambitious, no doubt. It requires us all, the commission, the national governments who roll out the vaccination strategies and of course pharmaceutical companies who produce the vaccines, to make great efforts.
“We are in daily contacts with these companies. AstraZeneca has announced a first step in improving its deliveries to us this quarter, and we will continue to work with them to increase deliveries further. BioNTech/Pfizer is increasing its production capacity, which will help the company deliver more doses as of the second quarter of 2021. And the hoped for arrival of other vaccines, such as Johnson and Johnson’s, should help to significantly increase the shipment of vaccines to EU countries in the coming months.
“The bottleneck is the first quarter. From the second quarter, the situation will improve.”