On Friday 23 January, AstraZeneca informed the European Commission there would be a serious shortfall in its delivery of 81 million Covid-19 vaccine doses for the first quarter.

A senior EU official, close to the contract negotiations, indicated member states could be getting as little as 25% of what had been ordered.

The roll out was already beset with problems. Pfizer/BioNTech had already signalled a shortfall in mid-January. 

The EU's bulk purchase of vaccines had been agreed by member states in June last year, but press coverage in Germany had been turning hostile since late December. The knives were out for Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Ursula von der Leyen

The commission went into fight mode, wading into a highly public row with AstraZeneca, which lasted throughout last week. However, by Friday the vaccine issue took an explosive turn, when the commission triggered Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

In the space of a few hours, the commission was on a collision course with the Irish Government. Unionists, who had already called for Article 16 to be invoked, were outraged. Brexiteers gloated that the true nature of the EU had been laid bare, and even die hard supporters of the European project were left scratching their heads.

Since Friday, the commission has been trying to explain what happened. However, it appears a sizeable amount of goodwill has been burned at a time when Ms von der Leyen has been desperate to steer the EU’s vaccine policy on to an even keel. And within the commission a blame game is under way.

One Irish official noted that the only other time in the past five years when Dublin was blindsided by a major policy announcement was when the UK introduced the Internal Market Bill.

How did things come to this?

The commission has suspected the shortfall in vaccine doses was a result of a pecking order, in which the UK was getting its full slate from AstraZeneca, while the EU had been denied desperately needed supplies.

EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said: "The EU wants to know exactly which doses have been produced where by AstraZeneca so far, and if, or to whom, they have been delivered."

However, the talk was about monitoring, not controlling or banning exports.

On Tuesday, Ms von der Leyen’s spokesman Eric Mamer said: "This is not about blocking, this is about knowing."

However, the stakes were raised by AstraZeneca on Tuesday night. 

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot told Die Welt and La Repubblica newspapers that the shortfall was down to problems at the company’s Belgian facility and that the UK had managed to iron out such problems because it had signed the contract three months ahead of the commission.

Furthermore, the contract only committed AstraZeneca to using its "best efforts" to deliver doses on schedule, and that the commitment to the UK came first in contractual terms.

The following day, Ms Kyriakides angrily rejected this notion. There was no "hierarchy" of factories, she said.  The contract had foreseen four AstraZeneca plants fulfilling orders. A senior EU official briefed that two plants in the UK were expected to be at the fore in fulfilling the EU contract. 

Still, Ms Kyriakides said Brussels was "not imposing an export ban on vaccines or restricting the export of vaccines to third countries".

Stella Kyriakides

However, on Tuesday, German health minister Jens Spahn went further. Mr Spahn said he was in favour of "vaccines leaving the EU needing a licence, so that we at least know what is being produced, what is leaving Europe - and if it is leaving Europe, whether there is then a fair distribution".

This was upping the ante.

On Wednesday morning, Sandra Gallina, the European Commission’s lead negotiator on vaccines, briefed EU ambassadors as the war of words between Brussels and AstraZeneca simmered.

"The commission is very worked up about it," said one source familiar with the briefing, "and were very annoyed about that [Pascal Soriot] interview. Some member states wanted to dial down the rhetoric a bit and to start looking at solutions. Others were saying, this is a real political problem that is affecting governments across the Union. People were going to rely quite heavily on the AstraZeneca delivery."

Ms Gallina said Mr Soriot’s claims were inaccurate. The commission had handed over hundreds of millions of euro in taxpayers' money so AstraZeneca could develop and produce the vaccine on time and in the right quantities.

"The commission's view is that you use all four factories and you deliver on the 400 million doses," said the source.

There was no talk of an export ban, but some member states agreed there should be increased inspections of the particular plants involved in vaccine production.

However, some member states, in particular France, were becoming increasingly alarmed at the slowdown in delivery. "It is difficult for politicians to explain to people that vaccines are being exported out of Europe when they are supposed to be going to member states," said one diplomat.

In fact, while member states assumed the commission was working on a transparency mechanism, behind the scenes it was clear Ms von der Leyen wanted something stronger.

According to several officials, the transparency mechanism was not sufficient. Instead it would have to become a trade instrument, an altogether more robust piece of legislation. It would shift the heavy lifting from Stella Kyriakides' department (DG SANTE) to Valdis Dombrovskis, the EU trade commissioner and successor to Phil Hogan.

Officials in DG TRADE had been resisting getting involved. This was a matter for Ms Kyriakides and the health portfolio. On Tuesday, Mr Dombrovskis had even told reporters: "We’re not planning to impose an export ban or export restrictions. Primarily, it's a matter of transparency on the deliveries."

Valdis Dombrovskis

However, by Wednesday morning it was clear that an export authorisation regulation - the trade instrument - was being sought by Ms von der Leyen. This would have to be drawn up by Mr Dombrovskis’s trade department, but with input from DG SANTE.

Secretary General of the trade division Sabine Weyand is said to have had grave reservations about turning transparency into a trade issue and fought hard to keep it within the health sphere.

Ireland was not in favour of an export ban, given the sensitivities around the flow of pharmaceutical goods and the integrated nature of global supply chains.

In any event, the various directorates general began working on the new regulation. Time was very short, given that the target date was Friday.

In a briefing to journalists on Thursday, senior officials spelled out how the trade instrument would work. The emphasis was still on transparency, knowing where batches of vaccines ended up and making sure their departure wasn't scuppering contractual agreements between the European Commission and the vaccine producers.

Member states would grant an export authorisation to vaccine producers once the commission had cleared the products. The key objective was to ensure that there was "no threat to the continuous supply of the vaccines necessary for the execution of the [advance purchase agreements of Covid vaccines] between the [European] Union and vaccines manufacturers".

One official said: "That transparency we owe not only to the patients in Europe, or the population in Europe which expects the vaccination to come, but also the taxpayers, because we have invested heavily in these advanced purchase agreements."

However, it was clear that in certain situations, an export ban might be the result.

The full regulation was due to be published on Friday. However, late in the week officials from both the customs and health divisions, who were contributing expertise to the final text, spotted a potential problem.

That problem was the Northern Ireland Protocol. Officials saw the protocol as a potential loophole.

"It may have come from somebody who identified a problem," said one well-placed source. "In other words, the possibility of Northern Ireland being used as some kind of a backdoor. The suggestion was, look, if that’s a problem, then let’s solve it."

However, according to three sources, when the first draft of the regulation was circulated to the cabinets of the 26 commissioners on Friday morning, there was no reference to any loophole, to Northern Ireland, the protocol, or to Article 16.

On Friday afternoon, journalists received notification of a news conference at 3.15pm Brussels time.

The news conference was then delayed until 4pm. It was only at a certain point during that 45 minute interval that the final version was sent by email to the heads of cabinet.

That meant that officials would only have had 30 minutes or so to digest the regulation before it was made public. The title of the email referred to "export authorisations" and, it’s understood, there was no obvious pointer to an Irish dimension to the final text.

"That paragraph only seems to have got in at the last minute," said one well placed source. The source is of the view that officials in DG TRADE, ie, Valdis Dombrovskis’s department, were not aware that a paragraph on Northern Ireland had been inserted.

So, how did the paragraph end up in the final version on Friday afternoon?

Several well-placed sources are of the firm view that the text was drafted by an official within the UK Task Force, ie, Michel Barnier’s team. 

These regulations need highly expert officials who can draft legal texts, and given that the text set out in some detail the nature of the Northern Ireland Protocol, and Article 16, the view is that the author of the text would have to have been well versed in the protocol itself.

Michel Barnier

The sources say this was not a collective effort by the Task Force, and that Barnier himself, and his chief advisers who were involved in both the Withdrawal Agreement and the recently concluded trade negotiations, were not in the loop.

As such, the belief is that the individual who drafted the text did so at the direction of Ms von der Leyen’s cabinet.

However, another senior commission source strongly denies this suggestion. The idea that a single official drafted the text on the direction of Ms von der Leyen’s team was simply not the case.

"Whoever penned something first never does it alone," said the source. "The guy or girl who wrote this did not write this without anybody else who should have known better. This text was discussed with a certain number of other services and relevant cabinets. Should it have been spotted before? We all agree it should have been spotted. Is it the fault of one poor soul in one service of the Commission? Definitely not."

Whoever was involved at the last minute on Friday, the first Dublin found out about the paragraph was when it broke in the media, around 4pm Irish time. Senior officials in the Department of the Taoiseach had been working on the travel issue when phones began going off.

One official made a call straight to Ms von der Leyen’s team, almost expecting to find that someone had got the wrong end of the stick and that there was no problem. During what was described as a difficult call it was clear that wasn’t the case. The official then wanted to know how the paragraph had ended up there, and why the Irish Government was not consulted.

The official at first attempted to find out the decision-making process within the Commission, "to register, as an immediate reaction, the astonishment and deep concern about what this would do."

There were calls made to Mr Barnier’s Task Force. "They were expressing shock and dismay, or, implicitly or explicitly, saying, we didn’t see it," said the Irish official.

But by then the story was ripping through the news wires and the political fall out was immediate. "The thing blew up so spectacularly that, as a system, they clearly miscalculated shockingly badly in terms of the implications of what they were putting out," said the source.

It seemed clear to Dublin that neither Mairead McGuinness, Ireland’s commissioner, nor the disparate Irish staff peppered throughout the commission, had been forewarned of the move.

A senior commission source insists, however, that the decision to trigger Article 16, was taken as an "emergency decision" and taken collectively, by the College of Commissioners. That means that all cabinets - including that of Mairead McGuinness - had approved the overall text.

That may be technically true. But it does not take account of the fact that, having been given the text with 30 minutes to spare, and with no warning that Article 16 was being triggered, Mairead McGuinness and other senior figures had not known that something on Northern Ireland might be buried near the bottom of the regulation.

Dublin, meanwhile, was trying to figure out why exactly someone felt Article 16 needed to be triggered.

The point of the regulation was that vaccine doses leaving the EU would have to have an export authorisation. Batches would be monitored by the customs authorities of member states and then authorisation cleared by the commission.

Any such batches moving from one EU member state to another would not be required to have such formalities before shipment.

However, under the protocol Northern Ireland is regarded as part of the single market, meaning shipments of vaccines to Belfast would also have enjoyed the waiving of the export authorisations.

But, given the possibility for consignments to cross into GB - a third country - this theoretically meant these shipments needed the export authorisations, hence the loophole, and hence the idea of triggering Article 16. 

"A shipment leaving a Belgian factory to Belfast would therefore have to have filled in the same forms filled in as if they were going to Mexico City," said a source. "It was never a question of border controls between Ireland or Northern Ireland or anywhere else."

Officials in Dublin say that that would be the most charitable interpretation of why the Article 16 lever was pulled. In other words, it was simply covering a loophole and would not have had any practical effect at the border. 

Even then, this was no excuse to go the whole hog, say Irish officials, and not only trigger Article 16, but trigger its emergency provision. This meant sidestepping the normal consultation procedures with London before the article’s safeguard clause is used. 

"The threshold to trigger the urgency element of it, where you actually unilaterally and instantaneously trigger the article, has to be an extraordinarily high bar," said one Irish source.

Once Dublin raised its objections, and a series of phone calls took place between President von der Leyen and Taoiseach Micheál Martin, the commission quickly went into reverse gear.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin

"In a different situation you might have had, oh, the Irish have gone off on one," said one senior figure in Dublin.

"We didn’t get that. Once we registered as forcefully as we did that this would be a disaster, the machine very quickly went into the mode of, OK, we get it, we have to see what we have to do here to put out that fire, but also need to find a way to press on with the thing they were trying to do."

While the Taoiseach was talking to President von der Leyen, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney was in touch with London, where officials were just as blindsided. 

Dublin felt that British officials were helpfully restrained in their response, knowing that the Taoiseach was trying to calm the unfolding crisis. By 9.30pm Irish time, the Article 16 element had been removed, and a statement to this effect issued by the commission.

Considerable damage has been done. The Government in Dublin had been, since the beginning of January, trying to massage the mounting anger in Northern Ireland about the effects of the protocol.

"The actions on Friday undermined all the people who were working to defend the protocol," said an Irish official. "The idea that every time we hit a snag on the protocol we start waving Article 16 around is foolish."

Dublin was also alarmed at how recklessly Article 16 was invoked given the fact that nearly five years, and exhausting, excruciating diplomacy, had been expended on managing Brexit and the Irish border issue. Where was the institutional memory?

What’s worse, it was not clear whether or not Sabine Weyand and Stéphanie Riso, Ms von der Leyen’s chief Brexit adviser, who played a key role in both the evolution of the Northern Ireland Protocol, and a pivotal one in last December’s trade talks finale, were in on the decision.

Sources have strongly suggested that Ms Weyand did not know that the Article 16 clause had gone in at the last minute. Another source believes that Ms Riso was aware but had argued against its use. A spokesman for the commission declined to identify who exactly issued the request and who signed off on the paragraph, beyond the fact that it was a "collective" decision.

The impact will certainly linger. The commission is saying that it was a genuine mistake and that the political consequences should have been grasped sooner. However, they insist that in such an emergency situation, these things could sometimes happen.

However, already observers are linking the threats against port staff in Northern Ireland with the events of last Friday. Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said: "Whatever the reason the threat of violence is simply unacceptable, full stop. You don’t look for excuses. That must be very, very clear."

He added: "It’s very clear that the threats have originated before this discussion on Article 16".

The commission will hope the controversy will die down, given how quickly they withdrew the offending paragraph. But the overall export authorisation regulation has drawn fire from the EU’s trade partners over implications it might have for their supplies of European-produced vaccines.

There is talk of lessons being learned, but in the middle of a pandemic and vaccine crisis, priorities may lie elsewhere. Irish officials are expected to start some tricky conversations with the commission in the coming weeks to ensure that the protocol is "minded".