Northern Ireland clash has one key player behind the scenes: Biden

LONDON – When President Biden met Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the White House last month, one of Mr Biden’s advisers handed him a note reminding him to raise the issue of trade tensions over Northern Ireland .

“We’ve talked about this before,” the president said, according to those in attendance, referring to a one-on-one session he had with Mr Johnson ahead of the group’s meeting. It is unclear what Mr Biden said to his British guest, but the president’s interest in Northern Ireland has not waned since then.

In recent days, uninvited, Mr Biden has asked his staff for an update on the negotiations between Britain and the European Union on trade deals in Northern Ireland. He urged them to send a message to the Johnson government that he should not do anything that would jeopardize the northern peace deal, according to officials familiar with the talks.

Mr Biden’s deep political and family ties to Ireland set him apart from his predecessor, Donald J. Trump, who was a staunch supporter of Brexit and encouraged Mr Johnson’s run-ins with Brussels. It also makes the United States an important player behind the scenes of the final chapter in the long Brexit saga.

As Britain and the European Union launch negotiations over overhauling complex trade regulations in the North – a legal construct known as the Northern Ireland Protocol – pressure from the US President could bring Mr Johnson to think twice before provoking another destabilizing clash with Brussels.

Mr. Biden is staunchly opposed to any move that would jeopardize the Good Friday Accord, the 1998 accord, negotiated under the auspices of the Clinton administration, which ended decades of sectarian violence in the North.

“I am very attached to these,” Biden told reporters before meeting with the prime minister. “We have spent a tremendous amount of time and effort in the United States. It was a major bipartisan effort.

Supporters of the peace deal fear Britain’s latest demands will put it at risk by causing the resurrection of a hard border across the island of Ireland rather than the current arrangement in which it does not There are no border checkpoints and the change in road signs is the only notice travelers receive when crossing from north to south.

Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden’s national security adviser, recently issued an unusually direct warning to Britain not to overturn the protocol – which it threatened to do if the European Union did not agree to rewrite the rules.

“Without something like the Northern Ireland Protocol, and with the possibility of the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, we will be at serious risk to the stability and sanctity of the Good Friday Agreement, and that is a major concern for the United States, ”Sullivan told the BBC during a visit to Brussels on October 7.

British officials tend to downplay Northern Ireland’s importance in transatlantic relations. Some suggest that Mr Biden and other American politicians are invoking him as much to appease American Irish voters as to try to influence British politics. Others complain that the Americans are confusing the Protocol, a highly technical – and in their opinion, deeply flawed – trade agreement with the Good Friday Agreement, a landmark peace treaty signed by the British and Irish governments.

In addition, they point out, Britain and the United States have just concluded a strategically sensitive undersea alliance with Australia that underscores the hand-in-hand security alignment between London and Washington.

But analysts on both sides of the Atlantic say these arguments are wishful thinking. Mr Johnson, they said, will oppose Mr Biden if he does not find a compromise with the European Union. It could set back a relationship the prime minister has worked hard to build after being seen by some Democrats as an ideological twin of Mr. Trump.

“Biden has no grudges against Boris Johnson and he is ready to work with the UK,” said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on US and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “But he also cares deeply about the Good Friday deal, and unilaterally ending the protocol on a matter of principle could materially affect the relationship negatively.”

Mujtaba Rahman, a London-based analyst at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said Mr Johnson “underestimated” the chances of a strong American backlash if he invoked Article 16, a provision that allows each party to cancel the protocol if it causes serious disruption. Alienating the United States, he said, could hamper Mr Johnson’s ambitions for a foreign policy open to the world.

“What we do know is that Biden absolutely cares about the peace process,” said Rahman, who previously worked at the European Commission. “Anything that could jeopardize the narrative around Global Britain. “

To complicate matters further, the European Union last week offered Britain a surprisingly broad set of concessions to facilitate trade with Northern Ireland. Controls on food and animal products traveling north from mainland Britain would be reduced by 80% and customs formalities for shipments of many goods would be reduced. The flow of drugs would also be guaranteed.

The proposal appears to be a genuine effort to tackle a thorny Brexit legacy: how to deal with Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK but shares an open border with a member of the European Union, the Republic of ‘Ireland. Britain, however, added an additional demand – that the European Court of Justice play no role in arbitration of disputes. – what Brussels has so far excluded.

This is a point of principle for Mr Johnson because it strikes at the heart of the main logic of Brexit: that Britain free itself from the vexatious and oppressive surveillance of Brussels. If the two sides fail to strike a deal, analysts said, Mr Johnson will likely cancel the protocol, although he is unlikely to do so until the UN climate summit in Glasgow to which Mr Biden is due. to assist.

That, in turn, could snowball into an all-out trade war.

“There is a fragility in this relationship because of a provision that allows the parties to withdraw from the trade deal,” said Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London. He noted that Mr Johnson did not raise the European Court in the front of his government’s document from last summer outlining the problems with the protocol. “They were awkward in the way they handled this,” Mr. Menon said.

The relationship with Mr Biden is just one of many factors Mr Johnson must take into account when deciding how to respond to the European Union. There are the trade unionists in Northern Ireland, who have become hostile to the protocol because they see it as a rift between themselves and the UK. There are diehard Brexit supporters within the Conservative Party who see any compromise as a sign of weakness.

Mr Johnson must also consider Britain’s relations with its neighbors, primarily France, which is already in conflict with Britain over fishing rights and is angry at being kicked out of the submarine alliance by Australia and the United States. Such tensions, some argue, are an inevitable holdover from Brexit and are likely to persist regardless of how the current dispute is resolved.

“We are a medium-sized country alongside continental economic hegemony,” said Menon. “It’s going to take forever to sort out, because like it or not, whatever they do, it’s going to have an impact on us.”

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