The incoming president may slow trade talks with Britain but is unlikely to be a decisive factor in Brexit negotiations.
Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House will push the U.K. to work more closely with the EU — but won’t be the thing that clinches a Brexit deal.
In Donald Trump, whose dream of a second U.S. presidential term was finally extinguished Saturday, Boris Johnson had found an enthusiastic supporter of a no-deal Brexit, willing to talk up the “special relationship” between Washington and London.
Biden becomes U.S. president-elect at a critical moment in Brexit talks, as negotiators enter the final weeks where agreement is possible if the U.K. is going to leave the transition period at the end of the year with a trade deal in place. Biden has long opposed Brexit and his Irish roots have sparked hopes in Ireland that he would take the Republic’s side in any cross-border Brexit dispute.
“The bottom line is that Brexit is an act of self-isolation,” Charles Kupchan, a former President Barack Obama official and now Biden adviser, told Times Radio on Sunday. “The United Kingdom alone does not cut a large figure on the international landscape, and as a consequence I do worry that, moving forward, whether the issue is Ukraine, or India, or China or Russia, the U.K. is going to have to figure out how to make itself relevant at a time when it is very inwardly focused. So the relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. will be fine. I’m just not sure it’s going to matter that much.”
There is optimism in Ireland that this new dynamic will work in its favor.
“Now that Joe Biden is going to be the next president of the United States, that will be a cause for, certainly, a pause for thought in No. 10, to ensure that Irish issues are prioritized as we try to close out this phase of the Brexit negotiation,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told RTÉ radio Monday. “The statements that have come — not only from Joe Biden but from many on Capitol Hill — that if the Good Friday Agreement and peace on the island of Ireland isn’t protected through Brexit, that securing a trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. would be very, very problematic.”
However, Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group, said the impact of Biden’s victory on the Brexit negotiations will be “minimal.”
“The direct impact of the election outcome on the Brexit negotiations with the EU is overblown,” she said. “I don’t think there is any evidence to support the expectation that there is going to be an influence on the nature of these negotiations or its direction based on the outcome of the election.”
Raoul Ruparel, a former Brexit adviser to Theresa May, agreed, noting that the government’s Brexit approach is calibrated solely on its desire to protect the U.K.’s sovereignty. He said commentators pay too much importance to the leaders’ personal affinities and backgrounds, and warned against jumbling together the Brexit vote in 2016 with Trump’s victory that year, noting that Downing Street and Vote Leave “do not see both as part of the same phenomenon.”
Even if there is a no-deal Brexit and the British government takes steps that breach the Good Friday Agreement, Ruparel argues, its breaching would be such a massive issue for British politics that what Biden does in retaliation or whether he holds a U.K.-U.S. trade deal to ransom “would be entirely irrelevant.”
Ruparel also dismissed the idea that desire for a trade deal with Washington was the overriding driver of No. 10 policy.
“Different Brexiteers have different motivations,” Ruparel tweeted on Saturday. “[Downing Street top aide Dominic] Cummings et al explicitly rejected the idea of running Vote Leave on a free trade/global Britain platform. A U.S. deal has never really mattered to his lot.”
Closer ties to Europe
Downing Street has stressed the U.K. will maintain a very close relationship with the U.S. regardless of the election result.
But many analysts and former diplomats expect a Biden presidency will strengthen links with Germany and France. Gaston said this could have a significant impact on the Global Britain project, putting pressure on the U.K. to collaborate more closely with the EU in the first few years after Brexit.
“We know that one of Biden’s core priorities will be to repair, to restore and to reinvigorate transatlantic relations, and by that he means Washington’s relationships with Brussels,” she said. “The special relationship will in many ways continue to be important but will actually be expressed as part of that broader strategic, regional objective for European regional security and cooperation. In some ways a Biden victory de-emphasizes the singular importance of the special relationship somewhat because the Biden team will be looking at transatlantic relations in the round.”
Peter Ricketts, a former British diplomat and crossbench life peer, said the special relationship would continue to be important on defense and security, but in other areas Britain would be “less useful” to the U.S. administration. “When Biden looks towards Europe, he will see Paris and Berlin more as the center of gravity of what’s really important for America in Europe,” he said.
Nigel Farage, founder of the Brexit Party and a vocal supporter of Trump, agreed the U.K.’s influence in Washington would diminish under Biden. “Donald Trump is pro-British in a way that Joe Biden never was and will never be,” he said. “A Biden victory means a return to the days of Barack Obama, when he flew to Berlin when he crossed the Atlantic rather than to London.”
Trade brakes on?
A Biden victory could delay a U.K.-U.S. trade deal.
The Johnson government has worked intensively to secure an early agreement with Washington, which would allow the prime minister to deliver one of his main Brexit pledges: fostering international trade with partners other than the EU.
In his first month in Downing Street, Johnson and Trump spoke no fewer than 10 times about Brexit and world affairs, according to his office. The U.K.’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and International Trade Secretary Liz Truss have also visited Washington multiple times.
On the day before the U.S. election, the U.K.’s Department for International Trade stressed that “significant progress” had been made in talks with the U.S. and ministers were therefore “confident” that they were “on track for a comprehensive agreement” and “in a good position to move forward after the U.S. election.”
Robert “Woody” Johnson, the U.S. ambassador in London, backed that assessment, telling the Daily Express that both negotiating teams still have to iron out “a few things” in the trade talks, but a deal can be done whoever wins. “That’s because the potential of a U.S.-U.K. trade deal rises above politics — it just makes good common sense,” he said.
However, longtime Biden friend Democratic Senator Chris Coons has been vocal in British media since the result was announced. On Sunday he said that the U.K.-U.S. trade deal is reliant on the outcome of Brexit trade negotiations. “These are interlocking concerns,” Coons, co-chair and co-founder of the bipartisan Senate U.K. Trade Caucus, told Times Radio. “The timing of the resolution of the current issues between the U.K. and EU and the prioritization that could be given to a U.S./U.K. FTA have to speak to each other as it were,” he said.
An adviser to the Biden campaign told the Telegraph the new president would not prioritize U.S.-U.K. trade talks in his first hundred days.
Many observers agree. They warn against expecting white smoke until early or mid-2021, with some warning it could be delayed by even two years under Biden. They say the sticking points in the trade talks with Washington — mostly around agriculture — will not go away with a Democrat in the White House.
“A Biden win means this will be a slower process. He will be domestic focused for the first year or two,” said David Henig, director of the UK Trade Forum. “I don’t think the U.K. is in any kind of special relationship with him. We’ll have to learn to live with a fairly normal relationship and try to work out our place in the world.”