European Council President Charles Michel
European Council President Charles Michel Image Credit: Reuters

Brussels: A senior EU diplomat in London was summoned to a meeting at the British foreign ministry on Wednesday as the two sides traded barbs over COVID-19 vaccines, the latest in a series of disputes that bode ill for post-Brexit cooperation.

The fresh diplomatic spat comes after European Council President Charles Michel, in rejecting broad charges of "vaccine nationalism" levelled at the EU over its export controls, said that Britain had banned exports of COVID-19 vaccine doses.

Britain said that was "completely false".

"These skirmishes are the new normal. With more economic divergence and more competition ahead, pressure on our Brexit agreements will only grow," said an EU diplomat.

Britain and the 27-nation EU last year sealed a new partnership after tortuous divorce and trade negotiations following the 2016 Brexit referendum. In force since Jan. 1, it has failed so far to ease tensions.

In January, an initial EU move by the bloc to control trade across the border to Northern Ireland from Ireland upset London.

Britain's unilateral extension seven days ago of a grace period on checks of its food imports to Northern Ireland is expected to prompt a legal challenge from the European Union this week, two Brussels diplomatic sources said.

"This was another provocation. It's not the first, and nobody expects it to be the last. The EU will keep calm and react firmly," said a second senior EU diplomat, adding that tensions over Brexit arrangements for the Irish border could influence negotiations on regulatory cooperation in financial services, which the City of London wants.

On Wednesday, the EU sent charge d'affaires Nicole Mannion to a morning meeting with British foreign office permanent under-secretary Philip Barton, an EU official said of the latest vaccine clash.

After accusing Britain on Tuesday of having "an outright ban" on vaccine exports, Michel then said there were "different ways of imposing bans or restrictions on vaccines".

Britain effectively prevents exports by using a UK-first clause in its contract with AstraZeneca, the only company producing COVID-19 jabs in Britain, according to EU officials briefed by the pharmaceutical company.

British officials said foreign minister Dominic Raab had written to Michel to "set the record straight".