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PLYMOUTH, England – Your nations may have a famous “special relationship”, but President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will meet for the first time on Thursday amid political and personal differences.
Biden hopes to use his first overseas trip as president to reassure European allies that the U.S. has shed the transactional tendencies of Donald Trump’s tenure and is once again a reliable partner. But tensions could simmer beneath the surface of Biden’s meeting with Johnson.
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The President strongly opposed the Brexit movement, the British exodus from the European Union that Johnson campaigned for, and expressed great concern about the future of Northern Ireland. And Biden once called the British leader a “physical and emotional clone” of Trump.
The UK government has worked hard to overcome this impression, highlighting Johnson’s commonality with Biden on issues such as climate change and his support for international institutions. However, Johnson, the host of the Group of Seven Summit that will follow his meeting with Biden, was frustrated by the lack of a new trade deal with the United States.
However, both sides stressed that the Biden and Johnson meeting publicly is about reaffirming ties between longstanding allies in a week that Biden will attempt to rally the West to stave off Russian interference and publicly demonstrate that it can compete economically with China.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan described Biden’s initial talks with Johnson as “warm” and “constructive” and downplayed any differences between the two nations’ goals.
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“You’ve been very in business,” Sullivan said at the White House this week. “And I expect that their meeting will only cover the promenade. I really mean a wide range of subjects where the two of them and the US and UK are on par. “
Biden, who is very proud of his Irish roots, has warned that if the controversial Brexit legislation proposed by Johnson’s administration undermines the Northern Ireland Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998, there will be no trade deal. Some on the British side viewed Biden with caution because of his heritage.
For the border between Northern Ireland, which belongs to the United Kingdom, and Ireland, a new regulation was necessary after Brexit, as the European Union stipulates certain goods and does not allow others at all. Ahead of a June 30 deadline, ongoing negotiations on goods – including sausages – have been controversial and have caught the attention of the White House.
“President Biden has shown crystal clear his firm belief in the Good Friday Agreement as the basis for peaceful coexistence in Northern Ireland,” Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One when Biden flew to England on Wednesday. “Any move that jeopardizes or undermines it is not welcomed by the United States.”
The two leaders were also expected to discuss climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, creating an infrastructure finance program for developing countries, Afghanistan and a refresher on the 80-year-old Atlantic Charter between the two nations, Sullivan said.
The new charter is modeled on the historic 1941 joint statement by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt setting goals for the post-war world.
But Trump’s presence was still felt on Thursday. Johnson and Trump seemed like kindred spirits for a while, both riding a wave of populism that brought about Brexit in 2016 and turned the American political landscape upside down.
For his part, Biden has voiced distrust of Johnson, who once exposed a Trump-like insult on President Barack Obama, saying Biden’s former boss is “half Kenyan” and has an ancestral dislike of Britain.
“Has Donald Trump irrevocably damaged relations with Europe? I think the answer to that is no, ”said Thomas Gift, director of the Center on US Politics at University College London. “But I think it created some challenges that Biden has to overcome.”
Since the Second World War, the transatlantic “special relationship” has been sustained by a common language, common interests, military cooperation and cultural affection. Sometimes this was backed up by close personal ties, such as the friendship between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s or between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
It persists even when relations between heads of state or government were less cordial, such as when British Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to participate in the Vietnam War in the 1960s.
“There is far more that unites the government of this country and the Washington government, at any time and any time, than divides us,” Johnson said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
Brexit could put these bonds to the test. The US still appreciates Great Britain’s role as a European economic and military power and as a member of the “Five Eyes” secret service alliance. But Biden has made it clear that he intends to rebuild bridges with the EU, a frequent target of Trump’s anger. This suggests that Berlin, Brussels and Paris, not London, will be in the foreground.
After officially leaving the EU in January, Great Britain had hoped for a swift trade agreement with the USA. The change of government in Washington leaves the prospect of an agreement uncertain.
And maybe there is another, if admittedly small, obstacle to maintaining the “special relationship” – the sentence itself.
Johnson said he did not appreciate the US president’s “special relationship” because it appeared needy and weak to the prime minister. Johnson’s spokesman said this week: “The Prime Minister has previously said that he prefers not to use that term, but that in no way detracts from the importance we attach to our relationship with the US, our closest ally.”