European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has acknowledged “mistakes were made” in the process that led to the use of Article 16 last month in a blunder that has destabilised Northern Ireland’s delicate post-Brexit settlement.
The commission chief made the remarks in an address to the European Parliament on the EU’s vaccine strategy, in which she acknowledged approval for vaccines had been too slow and that the difficulty of mass production had been underestimated.
“Allow me a word on the island of Ireland. The bottom line is that mistakes were made in the process leading up to the decision. And I deeply regret that. But in the end we got it right,” Dr von der Leyen told MEPs.
“I can reassure you that my commission will do its utmost to protect the peace of Northern Ireland, just as it has done throughout the entire Brexit process.”
But the Commission chief did not give details to MEPs on how exactly the mistake had happened, brushing off appeals from Irish representatives from across the political spectrum.
“How was the decision arrived at, who made the decision, and why?” Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher asked in the parliament chamber in response to Dr von der Leyen’s address.
“These are fundamental questions because we do need to put in place mechanisms to ensure that commissions in the future would not make similar mistakes.”
The Green Party’s Grace O’Sullivan called the use of Article 16 a “grave mistake”.
“President, you said this morning that in the end you almost got it right. President, you did not get it right!” O’Sullivan said. “What concrete steps will you put in place to reassure the people of Ireland North and South that the delicate situation on the island of Ireland is never threatened like this again?”
Ahead of Dr von der Leyen’s appearance in the parliament, Irish MEPs from almost all political groups had called on her to explain how the error was made.
In an additional open letter published on Wednesday morning Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Green and Independent MEPs called for the strengthening of links between EU institutions and the North including the creation of a Northern Ireland Assembly office within the European Parliament building.
Sinn Féin’s Chris MacManus said direct engagement of communities in Northern Ireland and their political representatives was needed to ensure democratic oversight of the Protocol.
“Madame president, it is unacceptable that the commission didn’t see the potential of destabilising the withdrawal agreement and the Good Friday Agreement by proposing the use of Article 16 of the Protocol,” MacManus said. “Now we must ensure the fiasco isn’t repeated, and part of that is picking up the phone to Dublin and Belfast.”
On the EU’s vaccine rollout, von der Leyen said 26 million vaccine doses had been delivered and that by the end of the summer 70 per cent of adults in the 27-nation bloc should have been inoculated.
She defended the decision to jointly procure vaccines as a bloc, saying that if each member state had negotiated independently with pharmaceutical companies it would have been “economic madness” that would have led to just a few large countries having guaranteed doses.
“And yet it is a fact that we are not today where we want to be in the fight against the virus,” she said.
“We were late with the approval. We were too optimistic on mass production. And perhaps we were also too certain that the orders would actually be delivered on time.”