What Does Biden’s Election Mean for Boris and Brexit?

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on a call with US President elect Joe Biden, 10 November Source: Downing Street

Joe Biden’s election as the 46th President of the United States was confirmed by TV networks across the globe on Saturday 7th November. The Democratic Party candidate succeeded over Donald Trump by 73 electoral votes and 3.3% of the popular vote. On the same day, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a meeting with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, during which the two continued to discuss a post-Brexit UK-EU trade deal. Johnson, however, faced less success than Biden that weekend, as little was done to resolve the trade disagreements still lingering between the UK and EU.

The question now is: will Biden’s election aid Boris where clashes with the EU continue to occur?

JOE BIDEN ON BREXIT

Joe Biden has been clear in his pro-EU stance. As Vice President to Barack Obama, he declared the administration’s preference for the UK to have remained in the EU, as well as stating that he personally would have voted ‘remain’. Ultimately respecting the decision, Biden has been particularly adamant that the UK take special care in preserving the Good Friday Agreement, sustaining peace in Northern Ireland, in Brexit proceedings. In September, he warned on Twitter that the Agreement should not become a ‘casualty of Brexit‘: any future trade deal with the UK needs to be ‘contingent upon respect for the Agreement.’

Biden reiterated this to both Boris Johnson and Micheál Martin, Taoiseach of Ireland, during his calls to international leaders following his election. The new President elect indicated that peace in Northern Ireland was among his top priorities in future engagements with the UK, as it leaves the EU, and with Ireland.

Aside from his judgment on the Brexit decision, Joe Biden has also previously conveyed disapproval of Boris Johnson, likening him to Donald Trump. However, upon winning the presidency, Biden has confirmed he will continue to sustain the special relationship between the UK and US. His discussion with Boris Johnson, shortly after the election result, promised cooperation on mutual concerns, especially the global economic recovery following the Coronavirus outbreak and climate change. In his congratulatory note to the new President, Boris Johnson expressed similar interests, but also stressed trade and security as part of the mutual priorities he hopes to collaborate with Biden on.

Joe Biden, as the US Vice President, meeting with then President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, 6 February 2015 Source: European Parliament

Joe Biden’s interests do not lie exclusively with Boris Johnson, however. As with the British Prime Minister, Biden also conversed with President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, expressing similar interests to them. He has notified all three leaders of his wish to continue cooperating with the EU and has mentioned to Angela Merkel, specifically, his will to cooperate with Germany on a shared agenda with the EU.

DONALD TRUMP ON BREXIT

Unlike Biden, Donald Trump has been an avid supporter of the Brexit decision, and of Boris Johnson. Joe Biden’s now predecessor has spoken highly of the UK Prime Minister, commending him on his efforts to secure the UK’s exit from the European Union, while simultaneously criticising the institution. Trump has been enthusiastic in developing a trade deal with the UK from the get-go, meeting with Johnson to accelerate negotiations as soon as the Prime Minister replaced Theresa May in July 2019. He has especially advocated for the UK to enact a no-deal Brexit, claiming that this would allow the US and UK to trade ‘many times the numbers’ of current exchanges, and ‘certainly much bigger numbers’ than the UK traded with the EU.

Had Donald Trump remained in office and met his trade promises to Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister would have been expected to sustain and increase UK support to the US on a number of issues in return. One of these issues was the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, an accord designed to limit Iran’s nuclear activities, which Trump claimed to be flawed. Trump’s planned reforms for the deal were disputed by European leaders, except Boris Johnson, who was on board. Had Trump been elected for a second term, Johnson would have been expected to see through with his support, potentially clashing with other members of the international community. Trump has also brazenly challenged several international institutions, such as the 2016 Paris Agreement, which he has successfully withdrawn the US from. Johnson was consequently put under pressure by UK activists, scientists and politicians to challenge Trump’s decision. During a period where he would need Trump’s support the most, the UK Prime Minister would be at a crossroads.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at a press conference with then US President Donald Trump, 24 September 2019. Source: New York Times

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR BORIS JOHNSON?

Joe Biden’s election will perhaps make it easier for Johnson to secure a trade deal with the US. The UK Prime Minister is no longer under pressure to join, or at least support, a Trump-led venture into challenging major establishments in the global political arena. Biden wishes to re-subscribe the US to the original nuclear deal with Iran, sustaining what President Obama had negotiated. The same applies to his commitment to re-instating US support for the Paris Agreement. This therefore puts less pressure on Johnson to comply with actions that were intended by Trump but opposed by a majority of the international community.

On the other hand, Biden is an avid supporter of the European Union, and is equally eager to work with the EU as he is with the UK. If anything, he may prioritize consolidating US-EU relations over US-UK relations because of the multitude of opportunities an institution of 27 nations can offer, as opposed to what the UK can offer as a sole nation. Making it clear that a trade deal with the UK will primarily depend on the UK’s safeguarding of the Good Friday Agreement, Biden will potentially put more pressure on Johnson to negotiate carefully with the EU, so as not to damage future relations with the US. Joe Biden’s election may therefore pose some challenges to Johnson’s reliance on strong US support, initially set up by Trump, for the UK’s departure from the EU, as well as in its aftermath once the UK is fully sovereign.

  • Do Joe Biden’s goals align more closely with those of the EU or the UK?
  • Would it have been easier for Boris Johnson to secure a trade deal with the US under Donald Trump than under Joe Biden, or vice versa?

Suggested readings

Lawless, Jill (2020). “U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson denies his ties to President Trump weaken bond between U.K. and U.S. under Biden”. Time, November 8, 2020.

Manson, Katrina; Parker, George (2020). “Joe Biden warns Boris Johnson not to let Brexit upend Northern Ireland peace process”. Financial Times, November 11, 2020.

Tamma, Paola (2020). “Europe’s Biden bind: Stick with US or go it alone?”. Politico, November 15, 2020.

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