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10 June 2021

Will Joe Biden’s intervention force the UK to end its stand-off with the EU?

The UK government is increasingly isolated on the global stage over its attitude towards the Northern Ireland protocol.

By Ailbhe Rea

Joe Biden and Boris Johnson will hold their first in-person bilateral meeting in Cornwall today, under the cloud of this morning’s Times front page story. The Times reports that the US president ordered his diplomats in London to issue Johnson with a diplomatic rebuke for “inflaming” tensions in Northern Ireland, following the ongoing stand-off between the UK and EU over the implementation of Brexit arrangements for the province. 

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Biden’s desire to show that the US will intervene in international affairs ahead of the G7, which begins tomorrow, is unsurprising: this summit is being understood as Biden’s “America is back” tour after a period of retreat by the US on the global stage under Donald Trump. It also comes as no surprise that Biden is, yet again, emphasising his commitment to protecting the gains of the Good Friday Agreement. This is an issue on which the president’s deep personal interest and his wider political project of an interventionist US perfectly converge. 

[See also: The “special relationship”: Why a successful Global Britain matters to the US]

What is most striking about the latest intervention is the exact nature of the pressure being exerted by Biden on Johnson. Despite the headlines in the Times, this is more of a carrot and stick approach than pure stick. Yes, a diplomatic rebuke has been issued over the UK’s failure to implement the checks required by the protocol it signed up to (with good reason it would say). But just as significant is the promise in the memo that if the UK accepted demands to follow EU rules on agricultural standards, the US president would ensure that the matter “wouldn’t negatively affect the chances of reaching a US-UK free trade deal”. 

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It is a great irony that after years of pursuing the ability to diverge from the EU, the UK appears more likely to achieve a US trade deal if it aligns with the EU, smooths out the issues with the Northern Ireland protocol and keeps the US happy, than if it maintains its stand-off with Brussels. 

Will Johnson and his government reach a compromise with the EU under pressure from Biden? It partly depends on whether they value the principle of Brexit (“sovereignty”) over the actual prize of Brexit in the eyes of most Leavers (a UK-US trade deal). But it is a deft move by Biden to frame the choice this way. The UK government finds itself increasingly isolated on the global stage over its attitude towards the Northern Ireland protocol and is being offered the strongest incentive yet to reach a compromise.

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[See also: What to expect from the 2021 G7 summit]