Pieter Cleppe (PRA)
The question of how the prospect of a Joe Biden Presidency will affect EU-UK negotiations has raised a lot of attention.
Opinions seem to differ. Former Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage writes that “Joe Biden is no friend of Britain”, arguing that therefore, the UK, “is now far more likely to do the deal that Brussels wants.” Columnist Wolfgang Munchau on the other hand, makes the case that “diplomacy does not work like a dating network”, dismissing that a Biden presidency would leave the UK more isolated, also because the UK’s position on China and Russia is closer to Biden’s stance than the positions taken by EU member states here. The UK government itself has stressed that a Biden Presidency does not make a difference to their approach to Brexit.
Any deal is supposed to enter into force on January 1st, so for international negotiations, this is all incredibly last-minute. Importantly, also the terms to implement the arrangements for Northern Ireland, laid down in the withdrawal agreement which entered into force early this year, when the UK legally left the EU, still need to be agreed.
Northern Ireland is definitely the priority for Joe Biden, who has Irish roots, with his ancestors coming from close to the current Northern Irish border, and who’s the first Catholic American President since JFK. Interestingly, his ancestors lived in Carlingford, which just a few miles from the border. It should therefore perhaps not surprise that Biden has warned that “any trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border”.
A U.S.-U.K. trade deal was always be going to be quite ambitious to achieve, given the UK public’s wariness to accept openness to U.S. agricultural products – and America’s own protectionist instincts, in this regard – no matter whether Trump or Biden is the American President. Even if also Trump’s trade negotiator has stressed that putting up a border in Northern Ireland is a “no go”, Biden has been more vocal on it. The mere prospect of a Biden Presidency means there is almost no room for political brinkmanship over the negotiations on how to implement the Northern Irish aspects of the withdrawal agreement. That’s regardless of the fact that his Presidency isn’t legally certain yet or that Trump remains in charge during the final course of EU-UK negotiations this year.
The question is of course whether, regardless of who is U.S. President, either the UK or the EU would ever risk the Northern Irish peace process for the sake of a discussion over proper border checks, especially given the fact that the main entry points into the EU’s single market are the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp, which both are “leaking like a sieve”, according to Antwerp’s Mayor. It would defy logic to endanger the peace process over problematic control over a border, given the much more serious problems with controlling that border elsewhere.
Will Boris Johnson ultimately drop the controversial parts of the internal market bill, as part of some kind of horse trading exercise with the EU? There is a good case that can be made for this. 30 Conservative MPs already abstained during the second reading in September, meaning we’re not so far from a successful rebellion in case it would swell. Biden’s explicit concern, which he also voiced in his first phone call with Boris Johnson, may well reduce UK leverage here. Then, on the other hand, it may perhaps also prevent the EU from playing it all too hardball, in the discussion on whether it should allow some derogations of EU law for the sake of smooth trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, something which was requested jointly by arch rivals Sinn Féin and the DUP – out of concern for food consignments to NI supermarkets -but which has fallen on a cold stone so far in Brussels.
Joe Biden is certainly less concerned over future EU-UK trade terms than over the effect on Northern Ireland. That’s despite the fact that this may have a bigger influence on any UK-U.S. trade deal. If the U.K. would somehow end up remaining in the EU’s regulatory orbit, granting more U.S. access to the UK market will get harder. Certainly, this is a trade-off the U.K. itself needs to make, and Joe Biden will not preoccupy himself with this.
What is clear in this regard is that the U.K. isn’t prepared to let go off “sovereignty” when it comes to being able to regulate as it pleases, and any “level playing field” arrangement here will only be acceptable if UK sovereignty is respected, even if this may hurt trade flows, and in a permanent way, unlike the economic damage done by Covid. In this regard, it will be very interesting to see whether the UK will sign up to the governance aspects also laid down in the EU-Ukraine deal, which retain a major, indirect role for the EU’s top court to interpret aspects of EU law. Issues of EU law may arise quickly in any disputes over the future terms of EU-UK trade related to goods and services. According to the latest rumours, the UK would have accepted “dispute settlement” on certain areas. If this is indeed the Ukraine-style arrangement with the big role for the ECJ which the Swiss continue to refuse, this would sort of keep Britain in the EU’s regulatory orbit through the back-door, with all implications for any UK-U.S. trade deal.
So is Tánaiste Leo Varadkar right that the prospect of a Biden Presidency is “positive news” for Ireland, also because the “Democrats watched our back on Brexit”? That’s hard to deny, but the Brexit train is very much on the rails, and London was never seriously contemplating not sorting out Northern Ireland as responsibly as possible, so ultimately, it probably won’t matter all that much.
The backstory to all this is that “Brexit” and “Trump” get conflated all the time; Of course they have in common that they both stem from anti-establishment sentiment, but we should recognize major differences as well. “Trumpism” was never about free trade, even if Trump’s tax cuts and deregulation were free market policies. Brexit on the other hand, was always sold as an opportunity for the UK to open up trade more, which isn’t something that Biden would want to obstruct.
Will the “special relationship” between the U.K. and the U.S. now suffer? Of course not. Even in its most Brexiteer days, the UK government has always kept channels open with the Democrats and if there’s one priority for a Biden administration, it is to improve America’s diplomatic ties, not worsen them.
Pieter Cleppe is a research fellow at the Property Rights Alliance, based in Brussels