Has Boris Johnson’s feared falling out with Joe Biden been averted by G7 ‘love-in’?
Two leaders hail ‘special relationship ’after papering over Northern Ireland row at pre-summit meeting
Boris Johnson had cause to be nervous about meeting Joe Biden for the first time amid rising tensions over Northern Ireland, but fears of a falling out appear to have proved unfounded.
Following bilateral talks yesterday ahead of the G7 Summit in Cornwall, the prime minister praised the president as “a breath of fresh air”, while Biden tweeted that the UK-US “special relationship” as “stronger than ever”.
Insiders report that the duo “appeared to genuinely get on well”, says Politico’s London Playbook, and that their first meeting went “better than some on the British side had imagined” in light of ongoing wrangles about post-Brexit trade.
One possible explanation for what the Daily Mail describes as the “love-in” between the two leaders may be their shared stance towards Russia and China. As The Spectator’s James Forsyth notes, “the US and the UK are far more closely aligned” than other G7 nations about the perceived threat posed by the rival superpowers.
While the UK and US are in agreement about Russia and China, no such accord has been reached over the Northern Ireland Protocol. The Irish-American president has a vested interest in protecting peace on the island of Ireland, as the US is a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.
The Times reported yesterday that Biden had personally ordered his most diplomat in the UK, Yael Lempert, to warn Brexit Minister David Frost against “inflaming” tensions with the EU by refusing to introduce post-Brexit checks at ports in the province.
Senior US diplomatic sources rushed to play down the claims, with a source telling Politico’s Emilio Casalicchio that the report was “wrong” and that “discussion wasn’t directed by the president”. But London Playbook notes that the source “did not deny the demarche was issued”.
Meanwhile, a Downing Street spokesperson said that Johnson and Biden had used their meeting to “reaffirm their commitment to the [Good Friday] Agreement and to protecting the gains of the peace process”. The leaders agreed that both the UK and the EU had a responsibility to “find pragmatic solutions to allow unencumbered trade” between Northern Ireland, the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, the spokesperson added.
New Atlantic Charter
Johnson and Biden also used the meeting to sign an update to the 80-year-old Atlantic Charter, a statement of Western commitment to democracy and territorial integrity drafted by Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt shortly before the US entered the Second World War.
Biden’s team felt that the original charter had become “musty”, The New York Times (NYT) reports, and “did not reflect a world of different challenges” to those faced back in 1941, with today’s leaders battling cyberattacks, a pandemic-damaged global economy and climate change.
Although the original charter was signed at “a time of greater equity” between the two world powers, says The Guardian, the new charter outlines how the pandemic requires an “unprecedented transatlantic cooperation based on shared values of defending democracy, collective security and an open trading system”.
The updated version also underlines a growing divide between “battered democracies and their autocratic rivals”, led by Russia and China, the NYT adds. Both the UK and US must adhere to “the rules-based international order”, the new charter explicitly states.
Have you met the Bidens?
Biden and his wife, Jill, appeared to have made another friend in Carrie Johnson, who wed the prime minister just weeks ago. The two first ladies were photographed dipping their feet into the sea alongside the Johnson’s one-year-old son, Wilfred, while their other halves met for talks.
“I’m thrilled to meet your wife. I told the prime minister we have something in common: we both married above our station,” Biden told reporters before his meeting with Johnson. “I’m not going to disagree with the president on that or anything else,” the PM replied.
In a profile of Johnson in the latest issue of The Atlantic, the Tory leader expressed his distaste for the phrase “special relationship”, which he described as “needy and weak”.
But following his meeting with Biden, Johnson seemed determined to coin a new phrase, telling the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg that the association should be called the “deep and meaningful relationship” or the “indestructible relationship”.
“It’s a relationship that has endured for a very long time, and has been an important part of peace and prosperity both in Europe and around the world,” he said.
Plastering over cracks?
Despite the warm words and sunny photo ops by the Cornish sea, the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol still threatens to cool relations between the two nations. Biden is said to have “deep concern” over the trade dispute - suggesting that the “easy win” for Johnson in signing a new Atlantic Charter could still be “rather overshadowed by the whole protocol issue”, says Forsyth in The Spectator.
Johnson said that Biden had not expressed any concerns about the issue at their first meeting, however. The PM insisted there was “complete harmony” and “absolutely common ground” between the US, UK and EU on finding solutions to help uphold the Good Friday Agreement.
But critics remain unconvinced, with Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney insisting that Biden would “see through the spin and fog” from London and demand that the Northern Ireland Protocol be implemented.