Since the announcement of Mr Biden’s victory in the US presidential elections, a doleful chorus of commentators—including many familiar Remainer voices—has hastened to tell us that the so-called Special Relationship is under threat because the president-elect opposed Brexit and likes the EU. The new administration, we are told, will deprioritise UK-US trade negotiations, and the British government will therefore find its negotiating position with the EU in ruins: it will not dare to refuse the EU’s vassalage terms, nor will it dare to jettison the Withdrawal Agreement in case of a No Deal. It will not even dare to interpret the Northern Ireland protocol (as in the Internal Market Bill) to protect the UK’s territorial integrity and fundamental constitutional structure. Some of this comes from Irish ministers responding to leading questions, but the strong response of senior Democrats to the Internal markets Bill means there is clearly an issue. The question is how will it affect trade negotiations with the EU .
Alarmist views should be treated circumspectly for several key reasons.
- The president-elect will be tied up over the next three months with appointments to his administration and sorting out legal wrangles from the election.
- He does not take office until 20 January. But we have to agree a deal with the EU by the end of next week if there is to be a realistic chance of ratification before the end of the transition period.
- A response to coronavirus will surely be Mr Biden’s top priority. His main concern will be to cement his control in America, as the EU is likely to discover quite soon.
- The Democrats have already said that they are in favour of a UK-US trade deal as well as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the UK may also favour joining. Georgina Wright of the Institute for Government has argued that Democrats will see advantage for the USA in an EU-UK deal as preparing the ground for a later US-EU trade deal. Former US ambassador to Europe Anthony Gardner says that Biden values relationships with both the EU and UK.
- Though a new trade deal with the US would be an important political gesture, our current successful trade with the USA is on WTO terms. A change of president will not change those terms.
- Politically, Boris Johnson cannot be perceived as surrendering to the EU to appease Joe Biden any more than he could to appease Barack Obama or Donald Trump. It is, however, a basic tenet of French foreign policy that the UK will jump as high as Washington wants, and this by extension colours EU policy and Remainer thinking, but it is a very false premise in the context of Brexit.
- Indeed, if a Biden presidency encourages the EU to play hardball thinking we can be forced to fold, then there is much more likely to be a WTO exit on 31 December, which has some advantages.
- If Mr Biden has genuine concerns about the Irish Border and the threat to peace he will be told that the UK has always made it clear that we are committed to upholding the Good Friday Agreement [GFA] and an invisible border. Without the Internal Market Bill, it is the Withdrawal itself Agreement that threatens the integrity of the GFA as Lord David Trimble, architect of the GFA, has forcibly argued.
Caroline Bell is the pen-name of a civil servant