A row over COVID vaccine supplies prompted the EU to use the “nuclear” option of invoking Article 16 – but then it quickly changed course, so what is it all about?
The article is part of the Northern Ireland Protocol – the agreement that governs the country’s trading arrangements with the European Union and the rest of the UK after Brexit.
The protocol was one of the toughest barriers in agreeing the recent deal, and was designed to keep trade flowing smoothly on the island and avoid checkpoints.
What effect does the Protocol have?
It means Northern Ireland has a different status to the other UK nations.
It is effectively still inside the EU customs territory and the single market for goods.
Goods can flow between Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the EU in the same way they did when the UK was a member – without customs checks, tariffs or new paperwork.
Why is invoking Article 16 so serious?
It’s considered to be the option of last resort.
The article is intended to be used when the protocol is unexpectedly leading to serious “economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.
It allows the UK or the EU to act unilaterally to avoid these difficulties – but doesn’t mean the protocol is suspended.
The idea is that it’s used when the parties haven’t been able to agree a joint approach to solving the problems.
What can the other side do if the article is triggered?
They are able to take “rebalancing” measures – but they must be proportionate.
Why did the EU decide to use it on Friday?
It’s all related to the row over supplies of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
It wants supplies sent from UK factories to Europe to make up for a large shortfall in the amount it was expecting.
Many EU countries are way behind the UK when it comes to the vaccine rollout and some areas have had to pause their programmes.
The Union now wants to protect vaccines going from EU factories to outside countries.
It has brought in a mechanism so that member countries need to authorise any exports, but insists it’s not a ban
The EU was worried trade arrangements under the Northern Ireland Protocol could be used as a “back door” to get around restrictions and send more supplies of the vaccine to the UK.
Would it have affected supplies in Northern Ireland?
Not in the short term as it gets its jabs shipped over from the rest of the UK under the national rollout.
But triggering Article 16 would have meant Northern Ireland was considered an export territory for vaccines sent from the EU and the Republic of Ireland.
Why did the EU make a U-turn on using Article 16?
Condemnation on using the “nuclear” option was swift and triggered a flurry of calls between UK and EU leaders.
Boris Johnson told European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen he had “grave concerns”, and also called Irish counterpart Micheal Martin
Northern Ireland’s first minister Arlene Foster described the move as an “incredible act of hostility”.
Hours later, the EU announced it was “not triggering the safeguard clause” and said it had been an “oversight”.
Ms von der Leyen tweeted late on Friday that she’d held “constructive talks” with Mr Johnson.
“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.
However, an EU statement also warned that if its new export control system was abused it would “consider using all the instruments at its disposal”.