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

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen speaking during an all-virtual World Economic Forum, which usually takes place in Davos, Switzerland. Photograph: World Economic Forum/ AFP via Getty Images

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen speaking during an all-virtual World Economic Forum, which usually takes place in Davos, Switzerland. Photograph: World Economic Forum/ AFP via Getty Images

 

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.

News Digests

Stay on top of the latest newsSIGN UP HERE
The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.