UK foreign policy updates
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From the lifting of a US travel ban to the doubling of Washington’s climate finance pledge, Boris Johnson’s mission to smooth over relations with Joe Biden after the debacle in Afghanistan appeared to bear some fruit this week.
While there were some blips, the UK prime minister has claimed several diplomatic successes during his US visit, which included a 90-minute meeting with the president in the White House.
Johnson’s visit got off to a fortuitous start when the US decided on Monday to allow people who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 to travel to the US from the EU and UK from November. London was seemingly taken by surprise by the decision but claimed it as a win.
In another piece of good news for the UK ahead of the UN climate summit in Glasgow this year, Biden vowed to double Washington’s contribution to global climate finance after Johnson urged the richest nations to deliver on their pledge of $100bn in annual aid to fight global warming in an address to the UN in New York.
“The lifting of the travel ban and climate finance look good but of course they aren’t presents for the UK even if spun as such,” noted one diplomatic official.
And Johnson’s White House meeting came a week after London joined forces with Washington and Canberra to forge Aukus, a defence pact in the Asia-Pacific region.
The deal followed a more testing period of transatlantic diplomacy after Britain was openly critical of Biden’s decision to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by the end of August and the chaos that followed.
Points of tension between the pair included a stark warning from Biden to Johnson not to allow a dispute over the post-Brexit settlement in Northern Ireland to destabilise the region’s peace process.
However, British diplomats were upbeat following the Johnson-Biden meeting. One senior official said Northern Ireland did not feature in the private discussions and the US president’s televised remarks reflected his longstanding position.
“Biden’s public remarks were completely in line with his established positions,” said the individual, who described the atmosphere as “very warm”. They added: “Northern Ireland did not feature in the proper discussions.”
During Johnson’s meetings on Capitol Hill, the challenges in Northern Ireland were discussed “extensively”. One diplomat said the UK prime minister communicated to US politicians that the current operation of the protocol risked undermining the Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of sectarian violence.
One British insider said: “We repeated our message that we are absolutely committed to no hard border on the island of Ireland which went down well.”
Another more cynical diplomatic official suggested: “No 10 still don’t get the importance of all things Irish to Biden. It won’t go away. Biden is instinctively Catholic Republican but the White House are allergic to anything which could lead the Good Friday Agreement to unravel.”
As expectations faded this week for an early trade agreement with Washington, Johnson conceded the Biden administration had made clear that trade deals were not a legislative priority as it focuses on its domestic economic agenda.
A post-Brexit trade deal had previously been hailed by Johnson as one of the main prizes of leaving the EU; British officials speculated the UK could instead seek to join the US/Canada/Mexico trade agreement.
However, that idea was shot down by Downing Street within hours. “What we are focused on is the US deal,” said a spokesperson. “There are no plans to go beyond that at this stage.” The opposition Labour party called the confusion “a shambles”.
Thomas Wright, transatlantic expert at the Brookings Institution, said the trip had been “important” and looked like it had been a “success”, which is how Downing Street described it, citing the lifting of the travel ban and Aukus.
While Biden and Johnson exchanged pleasantries about the US president’s love of train travel — and Johnson even took an Amtrak train to arrive in the capital for his meeting at the White House — Wright said the personal aspect of their relationship “has always been massively overplayed”.
“I think they got on well, but I don’t think that was the challenge of this trip. It’s not Trump — with Trump, that stuff matters because if something goes wrong, then he’ll bear a grudge and it will affect the policy.”
Far more important, he said, was London’s ability to say it was now “part of this really important new strategic arrangement” and securing the lifting of the travel ban even before Johnson had occasion to raise it at their personal meeting.
“The differences are still significant, I think, particularly the [Northern Ireland] protocol. If he tries to unravel it, that would be a big problem,” Wright said, adding that a trade deal was also very unlikely but that neither issue was set to be resolved on this trip, which he said was not a make-or-break visit for UK-US relations.
Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the US and Americas programme at Chatham House in London, said: “Everyone knows that a US-UK free trade deal wasn’t on the cards right now, especially the prime minister, so playing it up is a bit of a cheap shot.
“What Prime Minister Johnson is able to point to: big wins on climate financing . . . and a strategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific — these things are arguably more important in delivering a Global Britain agenda than a bilateral free trade deal.
“Of course, there is always now the shadow of a looming crisis if the Irish border is tampered with.”