The EU Commission has apologised for the major diplomatic row it caused last month over the Irish border, admitting a mistake was made and is “deeply regretted”.
The significant diplomatic and political crisis was caused by the EU’s move on Friday, January 29, to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, only for it to be stopped at the last minute following loud protests from Dublin.
Speaking to the Oireachtas European Affairs Committee on Tuesday morning, EU vice president Maroš Šefčovič made clear that the move to trigger Article 16 of the protocol, which would have stopped the importation of vaccines into the North, was driven by a “lack of transparency” as to where EU-made vaccines were going.
“Please, we made a mistake but take it in the perspective of the longstanding relationship we have with Ireland," he said.
"We were under enormous pressure to ensure we got our fair share of vaccines.
"We did our best to limit the consequences of Britain leaving the EU, the single market and the customs union,” he said.
When asked by Labour TD Brendan Howlin as to who was responsible, Mr Šefčovič said what was proposed was “a draft proposal” but would not tell committee members who actually made the decision.
“No decision was taken. No article 16 was activated. It was a draft proposal, which was then quickly corrected.
"I acknowledge the mistake was made. We apologise for this and I think that now it's very important to really look into the future, how can we construct late work together,” he told the committee.
Fianna Fáil TD Dara Calleary said he was "concerned" by the failure by Mr Šefčovič to answer specific questions about who made the decision and accused the EU Commission vice-president of "splitting hairs" by trying to insist the article was never triggered.
He said a "clear signal" was sent on that Friday evening that the article would be triggered. Mr Calleary and other committee members called for a "permanent" solution involving Dublin and Belfast to ensure such mistakes don't happen again.
"It is not a blame game, we are simply trying to do our job," Mr Calleary said.
“The mistake was a mistake, no question. A mistake was made, but once we really realised it on the political level, and there was immediate contact with Taoiseach Micheál Martin and with the foreign minister Coveney and also with the UK. We corrected before it was activated. That was done within three hours, we made the mistake, acknowledge it, and corrected it,” Mr Šefčovič said in response to questions from Senator Lisa Chambers.
Explaining what went wrong on what he called that “fateful Friday January 29”, he said: “The primary objective of the work of the day was to make sure that Europe is getting its fair shares of vaccines.
"Because we are the major producer of the vaccines and really we had a feeling that we are not always getting the fair share from the production which is made in the European Union.
“This was the thrust of the proposal on the table. The mistake was made but once it was realised we corrected it within three hours before the article was triggered. We spoke to the Taoiseach and the foreign Minister Simon Coveney. The matter was fixed within three hours,” Mr Šefčovič said.
He said the EU has always been “very loyal” to Ireland and Northern Ireland, the peace process and said that 80% of the Brexit talks were dominated by seeking to find a solution to the Irish problem.
Mr Šefčovič referenced a new “clearinghouse” mechanism between the parties to ensure such a mistake does not occur again and that issues of potential dispute can be resolved.
Mr Howlin said the long-standing solidarity from the EU toward Ireland is fully appreciated but added that “harm done” was a result of the mistake.