Biden, Boris and Brexit
Exaggerated expectations of the arrival of President Joe Biden in the White House in January 2021 are soaring across the world: they range from dealing successfully with the covid pandemic, to confronting China’s global ambitions, to tackling global warming, to returning to the nuclear agreement with Iran.
In terms of America’s close friends and allies, the stakes could hardly be higher than for Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, who led his Conservative party to a resounding victory last December by convincing voters of the wisdom of leaving the European Union. President-elect Biden, however, thinks that Brexit is a bad idea. So Boris has a problem.
The campaign to exit the EU after 46 years was based on the dubious concept of “seizing back control” from Brussels, so the UK would then be able – at least in theory - to strike trade deals with anyone it wanted in order to realize the dream of a “Global Britain”.
Donald Trump was a powerful if self-interested supporter: he raved about exporting “chlorinated chicken” – which was banned by the EU. Johnson appears to have assumed that Trump would prioritize a bilateral trade agreement with the UK, giving new impetus to the long-heralded “special relationship” between Washington and London.
Johnson telephoned Biden to congratulate him on November 10 when it became clear that he had defeated the Twitterer-in-chief. Biden then rang Boris back and urged him to avoid at all costs failing to secure a crucial deal within days on future post-Brexit UK-EU trade relations, including difficult issues like finance, state aid and fishing.
Complicating the story is controversy over checks on trade with Northern Ireland, the part of the UK that shares a border with the Irish Republic, which remains in the EU. The prime minister famously vowed that there would be no border checks, but he was widely perceived to be lying.
Biden’s take on this issue is influenced by him being of Irish ancestry: he opposes anything which is perceived to be damaging to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 (the achievement of Labour prime minister Tony Blair) which ended the “Troubles” that caused so much misery, terrorism and deaths. Any re-imposition of a “hard” border would be unacceptable in Washington.
The president-elect once famously described Boris as “the physical and emotional clone of Donald Trump” – which was clearly not intended as a compliment, any more than the British newspaper columnist who dubbed him “another reckless gambler with startling blond hair and a record of mendacity.”
There is another reason for Biden’s hostility to the man in 10 Downing Street. Having served for eight years as vice-president he remembers that when Barack Obama removed a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office, Boris attributed this to his Kenyan origins. “We will never forget your racist comments about Obama and slavish devotion to Trump”, as a former Obama aide tweeted.
Whitehall officials worry that Biden will gravitate more towards France and Germany than a Britain outside the EU in the spirit of the multilateral diplomacy in which he believes. The UK, however, remains a committed member of Nato. Another positive aspect for Boris is that Glasgow is hosting the UN Climate Change Conference in November 2021, which will be the first big event after the US rejoins the Paris Climate Accord – which Trump abandoned.
But Brexit remains a bitterly divisive topic and a cause of profound uncertainty. There was a vivid reminder of that last week with the sudden departure from Downing Street of Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s highly influential and controversial adviser who was seen as the brain behind both the Brexit campaign and the Tory election victory.
Cummings’ advice and his own behaviour (a stunning breach of the last lockdown rules) has also been linked to his boss’s incompetent handling of the covid pandemic, which has seen Johnson’s ratings plummet as UK death rates have passed 50,000 – making them the highest in Europe. Boris himself, who became ill with covid last May, was forced to self-isolate on November 15 after meeting an MP who was infected.
The devastating damage to the UK economy is will be far worse if negotiations with the EU fail to produce a deal within the next two weeks. Businessmen and economists have warned of unprecedented trade disruption, transport chaos, shortages of food, medicines and technologies – and that would be on top of the mass unemployment and bankruptcies caused by the pandemic. Time is running out.
Gordon Brown, the last Labour prime minister, struck a rare note of optimism when he predicted that Johnson would end up doing a deal with Brussels because failing to do so would mean that the UK would be “at war with America on the one hand and Europe on the other at the start of the new year”.
Boris has benefited both politically and personally from his relationship with Trump. But that could well change under Biden: “It’s amazing what can be achieved with a grown-up in the White House,” went one recent exchange on Twitter. “It is,” replied a Brit. “Just need one over here now”.