Stephen Booth is a policy analyst and political commentator.
Much of the media commentary in recent days has suggested a potential Biden Presidency will create short-term diplomatic problems for the UK. From this viewpoint, the prospect of a Biden White House in January 2021 – pending the resolution of the US election process and President Trump’s legal battles – heralds a diminishing of London’s standing in Washington and therefore increases the pressure on the UK to accept the EU’s terms for a trade deal.
The reality is likely to be more nuanced and a Biden Presidency would also present opportunities for Britain to work closely with the US post-Brexit.
In certain EU capitals, a Biden win is seen as strengthening the EU’s leverage in the end game Brexit negotiations over the coming days. Asked whether Biden’s projected win would impact the Brexit talks, Simon Coveney, the Irish Foreign Minister, replied: “I think perhaps it does.” EU diplomats have been quoted as saying a Biden win would “put a squeeze” on the UK, as the prospect of a UK-US trade deal could slip down the agenda.
The risk is that Brussels overplays its hand. Past evidence would suggest that the current UK negotiating team is more likely to judge a potential UK-EU deal on its merits rather than on what the occupant of the White House might think. An independent trade policy was viewed by many Leave voters as a benefit of Brexit, but this is not the same as believing Brexit was contingent on a trade deal with the US, much as it might be nice to have.
From what little has emerged from the UK-EU talks in recent days, it appears that the EU remains unwilling to bend on fishing, confident that the prize of market access for other more economically significant sectors is more important to the UK. This still assumes the UK is not prepared to walk away on the point of principle – that Brexit means regaining sovereignty over UK waters – which this government appears willing to do, however reluctantly.
The EU is also confident it has Biden on its side in the row over the Internal Market Bill, which would enable ministers to override aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the absence of a UK-EU settlement. Biden’s comments during the election campaign about a US trade deal being contingent on respect for the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) were significant, but ultimately, it’s not clear how much has changed on this score.
Indeed, the Government’s very argument is that the powers it is seeking are a necessary “safety net” in order to uphold the UK’s commitments under the GFA. And that it is the EU’s maximalist interpretation of the Protocol which threatens to undermine the GFA.
As I have written previously, a workable compromise on the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol is in both sides’ interests. This has been underlined this week with Northern Ireland’s First and Deputy First Ministers jointly writing to the EU describing the “unacceptable” and “real threat” to food supplies being shipped to Northern Irish supermarkets from Great Britain.
The cross-community plea from the DUP and Sinn Féin leaders for greater EU flexibility on the need for checks should illustrate to Dublin and Brussels that they cannot take consent for the Protocol for granted if it cannot be made to work for individuals and businesses in Northern Ireland.
Therefore, despite a large defeat in the House of Lords on the Bill, in the absence of a satisfactory UK-EU deal, there is every sign that the government plans to proceed with its current approach with the Internal Market Bill and forthcoming Finance Bill.
However, if there is UK-EU agreement on the implementation of the Protocol – eased by a wider UK-EU trade deal – the issue could be easily defused as there would be no need for the powers. If a solution is good enough for Dublin and Brussels, it will be good enough for Washington. If there is no deal, everyone will be in uncharted territory, including the US.
Meanwhile, Biden’s historical opposition to Brexit should not be discounted but does not mean it will determine his attitude to Britain now that Brexit is a reality. Following his congratulatory call with the Prime Minister, reportedly the first European leader he spoke to, Biden’s team stressed its desire to work with the UK on global issues such as security cooperation via NATO.
We also know that Biden shares the UK’s view that urgent global action on climate change is required. This presents an obvious opportunity, since the UK will host the 2021 United Nations climate summit, COP26.
Biden is certainly more pro-EU than Trump has been but it should be noted that President Obama arguably did as much as anyone to pivot the US’ focus and attention from the Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific. This reflected long-term global trends, which individual leaders can amplify or camouflage, but they cannot reverse.
Equally, international alliances are not zero-sum. A rejuvenation of US-EU relations does not have to come at the expense of the UK. Trump’s often combative relationship with the EU has risked forcing the UK to choose between Washington and Brussels when, ideally, it should have workable relations with both.
A US-UK trade deal may well slip down the short-term agenda under Biden but would remain doable. Bilateral trade agreements would not necessarily be his immediate priority, since domestic matters are more pressing. However, post-Brexit, a close UK-US relationship, including deepening the trade relationship, still makes strategic and geopolitical sense, whoever the occupant of the White House.
The UK is a major European power and a top-ranking middle power globally. Nevertheless, the UK might need to be prepared to think more creatively about strengthening US-UK ties. A Biden administration might prioritise large multilateral agreements, such as the Common and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which the UK also hopes to join.
Equally, some of the biggest domestic obstacles to a US-UK trade deal, or indeed UK accession to CPTPP, have not gone away. Improved access to the UK’s agricultural markets is a bipartisan interest in the US. The UK will need to be prepared to liberalise in this area if it wants to further its trade ambitions with US and other trade partners, including Australia and New Zealand.
The UK and the US continue to have many shared interests. And, ultimately, while personalities matter in international relations, interests matter more.