Biden presents new challenge for Boris Johnson

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President-elect Joe Biden’s win could have a big impact on Great Britain, which is seeking to finalize its departure from the European union, given Biden’s support for the Northern Ireland peace process and his circle’s chilly relationship with Prime Minister Boris Johnson. 

Johnson in a 2016 London Sun op-ed said some had seen former President Obama’s decision to remove a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office as “a symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.”

The remark brought accusations or racism at the time and has not been forgotten by aides to Obama or Biden, Obama’s vice president for eight years.

Biden described Johnson as a “physical and emotional clone” of Trump after the prime minister’s conservative party won a majority in Parliament last year.

The former vice president, who has Irish heritage, is also a supporter of 1998’s Good Friday Agreement and has warned that new trade deals must protect the fragile peace agreement in Northern Ireland.

“We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit,” he tweeted this week. “Any trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”

Ireland is a part of the European Union, but shares an island with Northern Ireland, which is a part of the United Kingdom. How to handle trade on the island was one of the thorniest issues of the Brexit talks.

Johnson has signaled he is open to working with the president-elect. He was one of the first world leaders to offer congratulations on his election victory, and he spoke with Biden by phone on Tuesday. 

“I look forward to strengthening the partnership between our countries and to working with him on our shared priorities – from tackling climate change, to promoting democracy and building back better from the pandemic,” the prime minister wrote on Twitter.

Johnson further signaled he was moving on from the Trump era, referring to the incumbent as the “previous president” during a session in the House of Commons.

“I had and have a good relationship with the previous president … I am delighted to find the many areas in which the incoming Biden-Harris administration is able to make common cause with us,” Johnson said. 

The good news for Johnson is that Biden is famous for not holding grudges.

His vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, pointedly went after Biden’s position on school busing in a 2015 debate. That didn’t prevent Biden from picking the California senator as his running mate.

Just as importantly, policy priorities of the U.S. and U.K. are more aligned under an incoming Biden administration, said Lew Lukens, senior partner at Signum Global Advisors.

“There were a lot of serious policy disagreements between the U.S. and U.K. over the last four years despite this ‘friendship’ between the two leaders,” Lukens, who served until November 2018 as deputy chief of mission to the U.S. embassy in London, said of Trump and Johnson.

“So I think the relationship will be on a much more solid footing going forward, where we can actually agree on things like the importance of addressing climate change and the importance of human rights as part of foreign policy,” Lukens added.  

The U.K. and the EU are working to reach a trade agreement as the deadline for the U.K. to leave the EU’s single market at the end of the year rapidly approaches. 

The Good Friday Agreement, which the U.S. helped broker, laid the groundwork for the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Brexit was also unpopular in Northern Ireland, where nearly 56 percent of voters voted to remain in the EU in 2016.

“That border has been an internal E.U. border. It’s becoming an international border,” said Charles Kupchan, who served as a special assistant to Obama on national security. “Figuring out the nature of that border and the passage of goods and people across that border is complicated.” 

Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin spoke with Biden this week, and touched on the future of the Good Friday Agreement under Brexit. 

“The President-elect reaffirmed his full support for the Good Friday Agreement and they discussed the importance of a Brexit outcome that respects the GFA and ensures no return of a border on the island of Ireland,” a spokesperson for the Irish government said in a statement. 

Biden, who frequently invokes his Irish heritage, was involved in the Northern Ireland peace process during his tenure on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

“He’s someone who has been involved personally in diplomacy on the Northern Ireland issue for a very long time,” Kupchan said. “He does care about it in a way that is in part personal and part political.” 

However, Kupchan threw cold water on the notion that Biden would “turn his back on Britain and focus on his relationship with Ireland.”

“The United Kingdom has been America’s closest ally since the 19th century,” he said. “The idea that Joe Biden would somehow walk away from the United Kingdom, it ain’t gonna happen.” 

Johnson would like to establish a U.S.-U.K. trade deal, something backed by congressional Republicans.

“We enjoy a thriving trade and investment relationship with the U.S. and have made significant progress in our negotiations for a future free trade agreement,” a spokesperson for the British Embassy said.

“We look forward to engaging with the incoming administration, as we continue to strengthen the economic partnership between our two countries.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the priority is shoring up support around the world as the best strategy to confront China. 

“I would encourage, whichever the new administration is in power, to quickly come to terms — do a trade agreement with the U.K., as quickly as possible,” Sen. Johnson said during a panel discussion Thursday with the Atlantic Council. “That will strengthen our hand. Engage with other Asian countries. We need a united front for the rest of the world to push back on China and demand they stop stealing our intellectual property and they start respecting the rules,” he added.

Others say a free-trade deal with the U.K. is unlikely to be a top priority for Biden.

“I suspect that trade deals will be moving down the list of Biden priorities, just because he’s got a lot on his plate,” said Sherman Robinson, nonresident senior fellow with the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“The current congressional action to permit negotiating trade deals, which is called Fast Track Authority, is due to expire and one possibility is Biden just lets it expire … and then comes back later when it’s time to do something.” 



Tags Brexit Good Friday Agreement Ireland Joe Biden Northern Ireland Ron Johnson United Kingdom

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