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What could a Biden presidency mean for a US-UK trade deal?

The first 2020 presidential campaign debate between U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, in Washington on September 29, 2020 | PA Images

5 min read

With the US election only days away, attention in Westminster has turned to look across the Atlantic, and what the result could mean for trade, Brexit, and the Good Friday Agreement

Since the outbreak of WWII, the UK and America have developed an unparalleled social, military and diplomatic alliance that has been euphemistically regarded as a ‘special relationship’. For many, a comprehensive free trade agreement would bring this relationship to new heights. Whether or not a new trade deal can actually be struck however depends in part on who resides in the White House.

The special relationship has been anchored by two fundamental principles. The first is shared values held by both nations, including a commitment to democratic norms, free trade and intergovernmentalism. The second is underpinned by the ‘personal’ relationship that Presidents and Prime Ministers have held; two examples from the past are the famously friendly partnerships shared between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and later between George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

Like their predecessors, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump have had a notably close relationship, with the President even calling Boris “Britain Trump” and speaking fondly of a UK-US trade deal during the 2019 general election campaign.

However, this rhetorically warm relationship has failed to yield many tangible results, and Trump’s administration has continued to adhere closely to its America First doctrine. After nearly eight months and four rounds of talks, the complexities associated with negotiating and ratifying a comprehensive trade agreement have been laid to bear. Tensions around the potential lowering of agricultural standards as well as American access to the UK’s healthcare system remain sticking points.

Nonetheless, there are expectations that if Trump is re-elected a trade deal could be effectively ratified by early next year. This is because a new piece of legislation known as the ‘Trade Promotion Authority’ was passed by Congress.

The TPA essentially means that new trade deals can be ‘fast-tracked’ through Congress with minimum amendments to the body of the agreement. However, in order for a UK-US trade deal to be covered by the TPA, it must be put before Congress by April 2021. If it misses that deadline, then the agreement will likely undergo significant scrutiny and become bogged down in bipartisan disputes. It is therefore in the interest of both Trump and Johnson to get an agreement ratified as soon as possible in order for it to remain protected by the TPA.

On the flip side, if Joe Biden wins the election, the new President may well shift his priorities away from negotiating a comprehensive agreement with the UK, in part due to his ‘Atlanticist’ outlook.

Joe Biden’s ideological position can be best identified as a form of ‘Atlanticism’ rooted in a policy that aims to expand relations with the European Union.

Trump’s shift from this established doctrine means that it is even more likely that a Biden administration would seek to rectify this imbalance by rebuilding ties with European leaders such as Merkel and Macron. Perhaps even negotiating a heavily modified TTIP agreement that was originally touted by Obama. This could further diminish the chances that the UK has in securing a swift trade deal with the US. 

A no-deal Brexit adds another proverbial spanner in the works, if the UK’s departure undermines the Good Friday Agreement, then a Biden administration could simply scupper any potential trade deal. The Presidential-hopeful’s tweet in September clearly illustrated this, “Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the [Good Friday] Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”

Another interesting issue which has been under analysed is the broader personal relationship between Joe Biden and Boris Johnson. During the 2019 general election campaign, Biden compared the Prime Minister to a “kind of physical and emotional clone of the president”. In short, for the Democrat Party at large, Johnson is regarded as closely aligned with the Trump camp. Indeed, many within Biden’s inner circle harken back to the Prime Minister’s claims in 2016 that Obama was anti-British because of his part-Kenyan roots. This coupled with the fact that the Democrats and Conservatives have broadly engaged on opposite side of the culture wars, adds further issues associated with striking a swift outcome to negotiations.

This is not to suggest that the Prime Minister and Biden are diametrically opposed on broader issues. On the contrary, a Biden presidency is likely to see greater levels of bilateral cooperation on issues such as environmentalism and security. Biden has already vowed to re-join the Paris Climate Agreement, and this could likely play some role in negotiating a trade agreement that commits to reducing C02 emissions between both economies. For Conservative grandees like William Hague, a Biden administration would help cement a US-UK trade deal and restore a commitment to multilateralism, something that could actually entice US policy makers to ratify any prospective agreement

Another important point of consideration is the likely implications that a UK-US trade could have on the future geopolitical ambitions of the UK. It is not inconceivable for example, that a Trump or Biden Administration introduces specific clauses in a trade agreement that pushes the Government not to pursue deeper economic ties with China. Such an act could lead to questions around the extent to which the ‘Global Britain’ strategy is truly ‘global’ in its scope.

Regardless of how the American electorate vote on 3 November, the UK’s relationship with the US will undoubtedly change in the medium to long term, and with that, the likelihood of a comprehensive trade deal could hang in the balance.

Nabil Rastani is Dods senior political consultant for defence and international trade

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