Following condemnation from the Republic of Ireland, Downing Street and some EU figures, the decision to override of the Northern Ireland Protocol— a key part of the Brexit agreement — was withdrawn just hours later.
Addressing the U-turn, Ms Von der Leyen told the European Parliament on Wednesday: “Allow me a word on the island of Ireland. The bottom line is mistakes were made and the process leading up to the decision and I deeply regret that.
“But in the end we got it right and 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.”
At the same time the EU took on powers requiring companies to seek approval of European authorities before shipping vaccines out of the 27-nation bloc. It emerged at the time the mechanism would also apply to Northern Ireland, even though the region is treated as part of the customs union under the Brexit agreement.
After provoking a backlash, the EU had said it had acted in “error” and reversed the decision that could have established border controls on the vital supply of vaccines from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland.
Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, welcomed the decision of the EU to step back from the threat, saying in January: “I think the European Union recognises that they made a mistake in triggering Article 16, which would have meant the reimposition of a border on the island of Ireland.”
In her speech, Ms von der Leyen stressed the bloc did not intend to “restrict companies honouring their contracts”, adding: “We fully understand that difficulties will arise in the mass production of vaccines. But Europe has invested billions of Euros in capacities in advance and we urge the member states to plan their vaccine rollout.”
“We do not intend to restrict companies that are honouring their contracts with the European Union.”
She also acknowledged that the EU was not where it wanted to be in the “marathon” battle against coronavirus, stressing: “We were late with the approval. We were too optimistic on mass production. And perhaps we were also too certain that the orders would be delivered on time.”