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What next for the Special Relationship

What next for the Special Relationship
8 min read

A free trade deal under a Joe Biden presidency may be more straightforward than people think, but the UK must confront the fact his focus will be on Germany and France, and personal relations with Boris Johnson are far from cosy at present. Kate Proctor explores what the future may hold for Britain and the USA under the 46th President

Boris Johnson has made no secret of the fact that the success of Brexit hangs on striking lucrative free trade deals with other countries around the world, and the most important of all is the USA. Trade between the two countries is worth £221 billion, potentially rising by a further £15 billion with the right deal. 

Going into the US election, many political observers assumed Donald Trump would be the more amenable to hammering out a trade agreement. He had said it could be both “substantial” and “phenomenal” at press conferences, he clearly liked Johnson, and Brexit chimed with his political outlook on power, control and sovereignty. 

On the surface then, the result looks like bad news for the UK. Joe Biden has been presented as an economic protectionist by nature who has little interest in prioritising Britain, especially when there are Germany and France to court in regenerating the Western Alliance. He dislikes Brexit and has made that clear. The ‘special relationship’ would continue as ever, just rather more lop-sided. 

But those with experience of international trade are divided on where the truth lies. Dr Liam Fox, former Secretary of State for International Trade under Theresa May between 2016 and 2019, said the American department for trade is tough, and it makes no difference who the President is in terms of getting a deal. 

“Countries will negotiate trade agreements if they believe they are in their mutual interests. 

“The US trade department is hard-nosed and mostly full of technical experts rather than politicians. I think it will make no difference,” he said. 

He agrees there is symbolism behind a US deal, but points out a lot of what we trade with the country is already tariff free or with very low tariffs. It would make a huge difference for certain industries, ceramics for example, which currently face 38 percent tariffs, but the real goal should be services. 

“It’s emblematic of the regaining of sovereignty of these matters, but even at the moment 60 percent of our exports to the US are services. Were we to be able to get liberalisation of the services market that’s when the really lucrative bit comes in for us,” he said. 

Since services are not under federal control and cannot be negotiated centrally, Dr Fox believes the UK should be running parallel negotiations with the largest states in the US. Only if deals are struck for example with California, Florida, Texas, New York – states that would be in the G20 if they were independent countries - might trade really start to grow. Without this, the deal remains limited in scope, Dr Fox suggests, focusing on finished manufactured goods and agricultural products, which is where the row over chlorinated chicken stems from.

Trade talks are now in their fifth round and current International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, reportedly gets on well with Trump’s trade representative Robert Lighthizer, who will be replaced in a Biden administration. Both sides had already conceded that a trade deal would not be secured by November’s presidential election.

Dr Fox said: “Talks are quite well advanced. I would have hoped there might be something in draft for the end of Trump presidency.”

All of this would also have to get through Congress, which has a House of Representatives still dominated by Democrats. There could be plenty who are far more protectionist economically than Biden and may be wary of the deal.

Joy Morrissey is one of several American-born Conservative MPs in the Commons, which includes Boris Johnson, but is unique in that she grew up and lived in Indiana and Ohio until her early twenties, and still retains her accent. 

She, like Dr Fox, is bullish. “Biden is not as protectionist [as people think]. He is more of a free trade person which is better in a way for us. He is a person of business and commerce. I’m not in any way apprehensive about it. I think it’ll be a good new chapter for us,” said Morrissey, who is a parliamentary private secretary to the Foreign Office.

“Trump was not the traditional Republican in the sense he was putting tariffs on a lot of things. He had some hard lines on a lot of the things he wanted with a trade deal with us. I’m positive about the future.”

The British film industry, technology in the creative industries and green technology are some of the areas of potential export growth, she said.

However, Lord Jonathan Oates, former chief of staff to ex-Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, said the personal relationship with Johnson could impact on the expediency of a trade deal, though it would never scupper the entire negotiation, as long as Biden thought it was in his interest.

Oates, who met Biden in 2013 in Washington at a counterparts meeting, said Johnson’s infamous “part-Kenyan” comment about Barack Obama, “Wasn’t just the rough and tumble of politics. It was a completely unacceptable comment.

“There won’t be grudges but Biden will have noted what Johnson has said about President Obama.”

It’s a point of view echoed by Clive Webb, Professor of Modern American History at the University of Sussex, who said Johnson does not get on very well with Democrats. 

 “They don’t trust him and that is going to be an issue for him I think. He has gone out of his way to be seen to be a close ally of Trump. 

“It won’t be easy for Biden to forget the personal insults that Johnson threw at Obama. It will come up again and again. Words do come back to haunt you.”

Oates said he found it astonishing that Johnson had not met Biden. 

“He was in the states on a number of occasions. The sensible thing to do was to reach out to Biden, not least because Biden has such good knowledge of the whole US foreign policy establishment,” he said.

And irrespective of relationships, there’s the question of practicalities. Robert Singh, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London, is also sceptical about what might be achieved, explaining Biden’s agenda will be crowded with a myriad domestic issues, and trying to get anything through Congress could be hard.

He said: “One thing that people passed over with Trump in the White House is that the Democrats remain by far the most protectionist party on trade issues on Capitol Hill. 

“Any kind of deal that was on offer from Washington under Biden, whether that was a bilateral one, or through the Trans-Pacific Partnership and trying to get us to join that as well, whatever deal is on offer will have to be ratified by Congress and that is not going to be straightforward at all.”

The Democrats still overwhelmingly hold the House of Representatives, while the Senate remains close with the Republicans ahead. At the time of writing, they need one more seat to get a majority.

Professor Singh said: “And obviously a lot will depend on where he intends to expend his political capital. There’s some speculation his agenda will actually be quite a radical one. Green New Deal, economic revival …. in which case he’s not going to have very much room anyway to push for a trade deal because the agenda is going to be so crowded.”

“He might be more willing than Trump has been to try to help smooth relations between London, Brussels, Paris, Berlin as a good faith intermediary but I can’t see us being a big priority for him.

“The way he looks at the world at the moment and what to do for the US is very much the old fashioned, ‘We need to restore an alliance of democracies, restore the European pillar alongside the US and to drag Europe more into the US orbit and away from China.’ To all of those ends he will see Berlin and Paris as a much more important strategic priorities than London.”

When it comes to trade, Webb also suspects Britain is not of huge concern to the USA.

“The free trade deal is not a priority. There are far more pressing issues the President has to contend with. There’s the obvious immediate issue of coronavirus, an ailing economy, highest levels of unemployment since the great depression of the 1930s. Black Lives Matter. You can reel off a whole series of domestic issues. 

“You’re going to have a very introspective period of politics. Britain will have to get in line to use American parlance.”

But the one person who has actually sat across the table from Biden, Lord Oates, said no-one should underestimate his intricate knowledge of British domestic politics, which he saw in twice yearly video conference calls between Clegg and Biden, who was then Vice President. 

He said: “Ultimately Biden is a pragmatist. And he will have a relationship with Britain that is relevant to the United States. I just shouldn’t think it’ll be hugely warm.”



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