Joe Biden is going to be in charge of the world’s largest economy as president-elect of the United States of America in January 2021. And one of the first in line that will be desperate for his attention will be UK prime minister Boris Johnson.
Johnson may have tweeted his congratulations to Biden and vice president elect Kamala Harris, mentioning “shared priorities” on climate change, then trade and security, however there is going to be a tense road ahead to forging a relationship, especially when it comes to Brexit.
Johnson’s politics are more aligned with Donald Trump’s and with Biden now in charge, there will be a real test of the well-recognised “special relationship” between the UK and US, especially when it comes to Brexit.
Brexit and international trade are intertwined
When the UK leaves the European Union, it will lose the benefits that comes with being part of the bloc — unified tariffs and trading conditions with 27 other nations.
The EU also counts as Britain’s largest trading partner — UK exports to the EU were £300bn ($395bn) (43% of all UK exports) and UK imports from the EU were £372bn (51% of all UK imports).
Once membership ties are severed, those conditions cease to end and no matter what the UK agrees with the EU — which is still hasn’t by the way — it won’t be as favourable as being an EU member. After all, that’s the point of being part of the EU.
The EU and UK have yet to agree a trade deal, increasing the possibility of a disruptive and abrupt end to the transition, which is set to end on 1 January 2021.
Couple that with the fact that coronavirus is also ravaging the economy, numerous analysts, think tanks, banks, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Bank of England (BOE) have warned that Brexit will compound the problems for the UK. The BOE said this month that changes to the trading relationship with the EU would likely shave 1% off UK GDP in the first quarter of 2021.
Britain needs to sign a US trade deal.
The UK’s Department of International Trade shows that total trade between the US and Britain was valued at £220.9bn and the US accounts for around 20% Britain’s total exports and 11% of its imports. If an agreement was sealed between the two, the trade department predicts it could boost trade by more than £15bn and increase total UK wages by £1.8bn.
But Biden has been very clear that how Johnson and his government handle Brexit, will determine a deal.
“We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit,” said Biden on Twitter.
“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.”
Why the hard border issue matters
Biden and Trump could not be more different when it comes to Brexit. In fact, Johnson and his closest allies are more aligned to Trump.
It’s worth remembering that Johnson was one of the leaders for the push for Brexit — and a hard Brexit at that. Back in 2016, he was one of the Conservative leaders pushing the cause for severing ties with the EU and faced multiple legal action over the years for the misinformation used during the campaign. While he managed to avoid court, the claims on now the infamous bus, have been shown repeatedly to be false.
During Trump’s time as president, which ends in January 2021 at an inauguration, he repeatedly voiced public dismay and criticism of the then UK prime minister Theresa May (a pro-EU politician) on, effectively, not being more protectionist and hard-lined with negotiations or walking away without a deal.
However, while that has been more aligned with Johnson’s attitude and actions, Biden is pro-EU and as an Irish American who has continually voiced his concerns over how the Irish border is being handled.
The fear is that without an agreement with the EU, there could be the creation of a hard border with customs, security and passport control between the UK's Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
It is deemed as unacceptable as it poses a threat to the balance brought by the 1998 peace process that ended 30 years of conflict between Irish Catholic nationalists and pro-British Protestant unionists.
While Trump said he would not interfere with UK’s Brexit talks (although he did keep making public declarations about it and likening the Irish border to his US-Mexico wall), Biden has been very clear that he would actively get involved due to his close ties to Ireland.
At the beginning of this month, Sky News reported that the Irish government would also actively ask Biden to step in, if talks turn sour.
“If Brexit talks break up without agreement and the relationship becomes acrimonious, the Irish government hopes that Mr Biden might be persuaded to visit the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic,” reported Sky News.
Furthermore, it’s not an unrealistic thought. Biden has struck a close personal relationship with his cousins in Ireland, bring his Irish cousins to the US to help with his campaign, and repeatedly paid visits to the nation to trace his family tree.
He is popular in Ireland and is celebrated:
Effectively, he has the diplomatic edge.
However, Johnson has continually flip-flopped on the issue of the Irish border through Brexit talks over the years, with the most recent updates coming from the last two months.
The UK government knows that it has to assure Biden’s administration.
On Sunday (8 November), Britain’s foreign minister Dominic Raab said on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “We are very clear... we will never do anything to put at risk the Good Friday Agreement... and of course if the EU does the same, this issue is resolved. Out argument is that... it is [the] EU that has put pressure on that with the approach it has taken.”
Johnson’s ‘half-kenyan’ comments
When it comes to immigration and identity, it’s been noted over the last few days that Biden will not have forgotten Johnson’s offensive comments when it came to President Barack Obama, who Biden was VP for, while Johnson was UK’s foreign secretary.
On the eve of Obama’s visit to Britain, he wrote in a British right-leaning tabloid newspaper, The Sun:
“Something mysterious happened when Barack Obama entered the Oval Office in 2009. Something vanished from that room, and no one could quite explain why.
“It was a bust of Winston Churchill – the great British war time leader. It was a fine goggle-eyed object, done by the brilliant sculptor Jacob Epstein, and it had sat there for almost ten years.
“No one was sure whether the president had himself been involved in the decision. Some said it was a snub to Britain. Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.”
He didn’t apologise, and said he had no regrets over this comments.
The fight against climate change
While Brexit and international trade will be tense between the UK and the US, there is more of a theoretical alignment with Biden and Johnson on climate change.
Biden first of all has to convince a divided US on adopting his proposals, which have been the most ambitious plans put forward by an American presidential candidate. This includes investing $400bn in renewable energy research, cracking down on corporate polluters, building half a million electric vehicle charging stations, and eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035.
While, it may be a long road for him to enact, his stance on putting climate change back on the table and moving the US back into the world stage of combatting the issue will be key. For example, over the years Trump’s administration walked away from global efforts, such as the Paris Climate Accord and opened public lands to oil drilling.
Lest us not forget, as well, the quiet, steady erasure of climate change references from government websites, including the entire page on climate change.
The UK has made strides on tackling climate change, including installing the Climate Change Act 2008 — Britain’s first legally binding target for 2050 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% compared to 1990 levels.
“We have made strong progress – between 1990 and 2017, the UK reduced its emissions by 42% while growing the economy by more than two thirds,” said the government.
Johnson has continually and publicly urged the world to move towards a net zero emissions goal, but experts have warned that if he doesn’t prioritise it, there will be more failings.
According to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), the UK government has not yet delivered the scale of investment needed to ensure a low-carbon future and the government has committed to investing just 12% of what is needed to meet their net zero emissions target.
But, this could be a key opportunity where Johnson and Biden could unite in efforts.
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