The Irish Times view on the Border: an error with lasting impact

A serious misjudgment by the European Commission has given ammunition to opponents of the Northern Ireland protocol

It was the perfect storm. The two greatest challenges facing the EU – management of Brexit and its political sensitivities and of the pandemic – converged head on and merged, creating the potential for a political crisis. At least a rapid retreat and apologies by the European Commission on proposals to suspend elements of the Northern Ireland protocol – along with assurances that it would now be "unaffected" – took some of the steam out of the mounting war of words.

Blindsided by the original commission announcement on Friday, an angry Taoiseach Micheál Martin spent two days in contact with commission president Ursula von der Leyen and British prime minister Boris Johnson. He welcomed the climbdown but insisted rather lamely no lasting damage had been done.

But what the commission now accepts was a mistake or “mishap”, to quote the Spanish health minister, has reopened old wounds in the Brexit arguments between Northern Ireland and Westminster, fuelled new UK media bile against the EU, and contributed to further undermining perceptions of the commission’s competence in handling the vaccine rollout. All lasting damage.

To put the best gloss on the affair, the enduring perception will be of one hand of the Brussels bureaucracy (officials charged with the pandemic) not understanding what the other (the Brexit team) was doing. And it makes it look as though von der Leyen, a key architect of the Withdrawal Agreement, who took charge of the commission row with vaccine developer AstraZeneca only last week, was asleep at the wheel.


Unionists have predictably seized on the commission's blunder as evidence of the latter's bad faith. First Minister Arlene Foster called it an "incredible act of hostility". And they warned that Article 16 was a permanent threat, likely to be invoked at any time.

Citing the problems the Irish Sea “border” posed to frictionless trade in goods from and to Britain, they again demanded the protocol’s repudiation. No explanation is forthcoming, however, on how in that eventuality they propose to preserve the North’s privileged position in both the single market and the UK.

Brussels had announced the potential reintroduction of Irish border controls as part of tighter vaccine export supervision that would in theory allow member states to block sales of vaccines abroad. The purpose was to monitor movement of AstraZeneca vaccine supplies after the firm last week announced it would be unable to honour its contract to supply EU states due to problems at one of its EU plants. Supplies could be reduced by about 60 per cent in the first quarter of 2021.

The bitter dispute between the EU and the company appears to have inadvertently caught Northern Ireland’s delicate politics in its wash.