The Northern Ireland Vaccine Row and its Implications for EU-UK Relations

On January 29th, 2021, the European Union invoked article 16 of the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland protocol, which permits either side to temporarily suspend its provisions in cases of emergency. The European Commission justified the decision as a way of preventing vaccines destined for the bloc making their way into the United Kingdom amid ongoing shortages. The move came suddenly and involved little to no consultation with other organs of the EU, let alone third parties. Universal condemnations swiftly followed, and the bloc reversed its decision within 24 hours. Despite the row’s swiftness however, this development is likely to have long-term implications for diplomacy and trust in the region.  

For one, it is important to analyse the debacle in the wider context of the post-Brexit relationship between the EU and UK. Some, like Guardian contributor Anand Menon, have implied that the Commission’s haphazard decision might have stemmed from bad blood formed over Westminster’s refusal to fully recognise the status of the bloc’s ambassador the week prior. This pattern of one-upmanship leaves the UK with a justifiable excuse to retaliate to future EU policies with similarly drastic moves, like the sudden imposition of tariffs for bloc products. It is a deeply volatile situation that might encourage both actors to see just how far they can push the other whilst attempting to stay within the boundaries of increasingly strained international agreements. Some might find solace in talks of diplomatic ‘resets’ coming from either side of the Channel, but one should not forget that actions always speak louder than words, never more so in international relations.

Aside from this debacle likely encouraging back-and-forth provocations in the future, it will also probably result in the UK accelerating its efforts to move trade away from Europe. With this move in fact, the EU has set a precedent for one side abusing the Brexit agreement to profit at the other’s expense. To Westminster, this effectively means the bloc cannot be trusted to consistently abide by the deal in good faith, something that is crucial to any functional free trade arrangement. Accelerating the UK’s trade shift may however prove to be a double-edged sword should the island nation’s potential future partners catch wind of it. A Britain desperate to escape its dependency on the EU is one that will be viewed as willing to sign onto any deal, no matter the quality. Thus, whilst Westminster is undoubtedly fuming, it is within its interests to strike a diplomatic pose for both the bloc and third-party onlookers. 

Domestically, the row will no doubt set pro-EU advocates back by several years. Indeed, it is worth remembering that this development has united every major British political party in their condemnation of the bloc. This is consistent with the current public opinion among numerous ‘Remainers’, which is unified in its cautious scepticism of the EU’s actions. The vaccine row will undoubtedly be weaponised by right-leaning opposition over the next few decades should any pro-bloc government come to power. It will take some serious work on the part of the bloc to re-establish itself as a dependable and attractive organisation to future British generations. Retractions and apologies might suffice for now, but the EU will want to consider some tangible gestures of goodwill going forward. This being noted, the UK should make a concerted effort to reconcile with the bloc and avoid the pitfalls of petty vengeance akin to the recent ambassador row. The Brexit deal has undoubtedly suffered a hit; both sides will have to demonstrate unprecedented levels of maturity if they want to prevent the situation from deteriorating further.

Featured image by Rawf8. Available on gettyimages under Royalty-free licence.

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