In Depth

Will Joe Biden rekindle the ‘special relationship’?

Democratic presidential nominee provokes anger from Tory MPs after tweeting about Brexit and Ireland

With the US hurtling towards election day, front-runner Joe Biden has just over 75 days left to convince the American public that he is the man to lead the country into a post-Covid world.

Few countries will be watching the result of the 3 November vote as closely as the UK, which traditionally enjoys a “special relationship” with the US.

Donald Trump’s presidency has seen those ties becoming strained, however. So could former vice-president Biden breathe new life into the relationship - or have the past four years irreversibly changed the diplomatic landscape?

What would a Biden presidency mean for Brexit?

Boris Johnson’s government is currently rushing to formalise new trade agreements ahead of the expiry of the Brexit transition period on 31 December.

In this “moment of British isolation”, Trump’s “full-throated endorsement of Brexit has made the United States a safe harbour”, complete with the “promise of a lucrative trade deal”, The New York Times says.

By contrast, Biden is an outspoken opponent of Brexit and was vice-president under Barack Obama in an administration that “put itself squarely behind David Cameron’s Remain campaign, notably clashing with Mr Johnson in the process”, The Times notes.

Obama infamously warned that the UK would be placed at the “back of the queue” in trade talks if the country voted to leave the EU. Biden himself said the day after the referendum that he would have “preferred a different outcome” and warned against “reactionary politicians and demagogues peddling xenophobia, nationalism and isolationism” in both Europe and the US.

And this week he angered a number of Conservative MPs by tweeting that any post-Brexit US-UK trade deal “must be contingent upon respect” for the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, and the avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

“We can't allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit,” he wrote, prompting a backlash from former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith.

He told The Times: “We don’t need lectures on the Northern Ireland peace deal from Mr Biden. If I were him I would worry more about the need for a peace deal in the USA to stop the killing and rioting before lecturing other sovereign nations,” he added.

David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, also piled in on Biden, stating: “Perhaps Mr Biden should talk to the EU since the only threat of an invisible border in Ireland would be if they insisted on levying tariffs.”

Meanwhile Conservative MP Joy Morrissey suggested his comments were not an attempt to rile the UK but instead to court the Irish-American vote in the US.

Quite possibly, says CNN. “Biden's comments will serve as an uncomfortable reminder for the UK that despite the British perception it has a special relationship with the US, the Irish lobby in DC is strong,” the broadcaster reports. “The Democrats have a particular interest in this, as former President Bill Clinton took a leading role in the negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement.”

How could trade be affected?

Despite Trump’s talk of trade deals with the UK, Downing Street has reportedly given up hope on the current US administration. Instead, officials are alleged to have approached senior US Democrats in a bid to “shore up cross-party support in Washington for a post-Brexit trade deal”, says Business Insider.

Trade minister Greg Hands told The Times’ trade correspondent Callum Jones that ministers “never strategise around elections”, but hinted that preparations for a Biden victory are under way.

“We do make sure for the overall UK trade agenda that we maintain bipartisan support in the US political system,” Hands said.

This apparent push to keep Biden on side may prove necessary, amid claims that he is planning to eschew a straightforward UK-US deal in favour of a more “meaningful” negotiation, The New European reports. 

Biden may prioritise an EU trade deal over a deal with the UK, as well as shunning the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a treaty backed by Obama but abandoned by Trump.

A Biden administration “would be ill-advised to tie its hands with a UK trade deal before a return to some version of updated TTIP [Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] negotiations with the European Union”, explains Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute at the London School of Economics.

What about Biden’s Irish ties?

Described by The New York Times as a “devoted Irish-American”, Biden is expected to “fiercely defend Ireland’s interests, as will his allies in the Democratic Party’s Irish lobby on Capitol Hill”.

Biden and his circle are “particularly concerned” about Brexit’s effect on the Irish border, says The Spectator’s Forsyth. “Washington is clear that any British backsliding on that protocol would cause problems, not just with a Biden White House, but on Capitol Hill, too.”

And defence?

Britain’s relationship with the US has “declined steadily over the past decade of Conservative rule”, mainly as a result of differences over defence spending and strategy, says The Atlantic.

“Declining defence budgets, the ultimate failure of the Libya intervention, and the House of Commons’ refusal to authorise air strikes against Bashar al-Assad after he used chemical weapons all undermined Britain’s reputation as Europe’s strongest military power,” the magazine adds.

In an article on the The UK in a Changing Europe think-tank’s website, Birkbeck University politics professor Rob Singh writes that a Biden administration “would undoubtedly be more congenial [than Trump] to British preferences” on issues such as the Middle East.

But “the notion that it would represent a return to the status quo ante - Obama 2.0 - is misplaced”, Singh concludes.

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