STORMONT’S FIRST minister Arlene Foster has branded the EU’s attempt to trigger article 16 of Brexit’s Northern Ireland protocol 'incredible act of hostility and aggression’ - but why?
Article 16 is part of the Northern Ireland Protocol – an agreement between the European Union and UK concerning trading arrangements in Northern Ireland after Brexit.
The protocol was one of the biggest sticking points to the Brexit deal.
Simply put, it is designed to ensure trade flows smoothly between Northern Ireland the Republic without the need for checkpoints or a hard border.
Under the terms, Northern Ireland enjoys a special status; despite being part of the UK, it remains inside the EU customs territory and single market for goods.
Good can flow in and out without the need for customs checks, tariffs or paperwork.
What the EU proposed threatened that.
Why did the EU trigger Article 16?
The EU attempted to trigger Article 16 in response to an ongoing row over supplies of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Vaccine.
Earlier this week, the pharmaceutical firm announced it would only be able to deliver 25% of the 100m vaccine doses ordered by the European commission before the end of March.
The EU wants supplied to be sent from UK factories to Europe to make up the shortfall but AstraZeneca has rejected those claims.
The European council now wants to introduce measures to protect vaccines from going to countries outside of the Union – including the UK. The trigger of Article 16 was an attempt to ensure the Northern Ireland Protocol is not used as a "back door" to get around these restrictions.
Why is invoking Article 16 so serious?
Article 16 was supposed to represent a last resort.
The agreement signed by the UK and EU stated it would only be used when the protocol is in danger of leading to serious "economic, societal or environmental difficulties".
It serves as a way to avoid difficulties, allowing the UK or EU to act unilaterally. It offers an emergency option for when the two sides fail to agree a joint approach on a particular issue.
Why did the EU make a U-turn on using Article 16?
The use of what is viewed as a “nuclear” option was rebuked by both the UK and Irish Government as well as leaders from across Northern Ireland’s political system.
Boris Johnson expressed “grave concerns” to told European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and also discussed the matter with the Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin
Von der Leyen later tweeted she'd held "constructive talks" with the UK prime minister
"We agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities," she said.
The EU eventually announced it was “not triggering the safeguard clause” describing it as an oversight. The EU statement did warn that any abuse of the export control system in Ireland would prompt them to "consider using all the instruments at its disposal".
What impact would Article 16 have on vaccine supplies in Northern Ireland?
Not much. Currently, Northern Ireland receives its vaccines from the rest of the UK as part of the national rollout. However, the triggering of Article 16 would have seen Northern Ireland reclassed as an export territory for any jabs sent from the Republic or rest of the EU.
What can the other side do if Article 16 is triggered?
If Article 16 is triggered the other side can take "rebalancing" measures – though it has been stressed that they must be proportionate.