London Calling 9 – The New Triangle – Britain, the EU and the U.S.

Blog Post by Irina von Wiese, former LibDem MEP

London Calling is the European Liberal Forum’s column aimed at bridging the Channel.

‘A triangle’ is how Anthony Gardner, the former U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, recently described the future relationship between Britain, the European Union and the United States – and whilst the transatlantic tone is still warm, it is very different from the ‘special relationship’ Boris Johnson enjoyed with the outgoing president. Fittingly, Joe Biden once described the British Premier as “kind of a physical and emotional clone of the president”, and Donal Trump himself described his UK counterpart as “Britain’s Trump”.

It is clear from this rhetoric that Biden’s win was not the outcome Johnson had hoped or planned for. While Donald Trump, keen to weaken the political and economic power of the European Union, supported Brexiteers, Biden made no secret of his views on how foolish Brexit was – particularly for Britain.

What does Biden’s victory mean for Brexit and the future of the UK?

First, it weakens the UK’s hand in the Brexit negotiations. A free trade deal with the United States now looks much less likely. Not only does Joe Biden believe in multilateralism and therefore prefers to talk to the EU, he also takes pride in his Irish heritage and is unhappy about Johnson’s attempt to shake up the Good Friday agreement. That pulls the rug from under British negotiators: without the prospect – however uncertain – of U.S. rescue, and in absence of a deal with the EU, Britain would find herself floating somewhere mid-way in the Atlantic ocean, isolated from her own continent and the rest of the world. Cynics say this is why Johnson stalled the negotiations until the outcome of the U.S. election was finally certain. Ironically, this also meant that even more precious time was lost, making a deal even less likely.

With Trump (almost) gone, the repercussions of a No Deal outcome for Britain have become even more precarious. Even Johnson, ever the optimist, must fear that his premiership cannot survive them. So he will undoubtedly instruct his negotiating team to make last-second concessions here or there, and strike an agreement on some side issues he is willing to sacrifice, in return for access to some minor EU markets and licenses.

Second, it strengthens the EU’s hand. Having a reliable transatlantic partner who will re-join the Paris Agreement and engage in multilateral efforts on environmental and human rights issues, is crucial for the success of the beleaguered bloc. Unlike Trump, Putin and Chi, who have an interest in undermining the European Union, Biden will need a strong European partner. That partner is no longer the UK.

Emboldened by Biden’s victory and knowing full well that Britain is now isolated, EU negotiators are unlikely to budge on key issues such as state aid and fisheries.

Third, it will force the UK to change course in the longer run. To achieve any trade agreement with the U.S., post-Brexit Britain will have to prove that she is still a trustworthy partner on the international stage. Abandoning the Internal Markets bill will be a first step. Success of the postponed UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), due to take place in Glasgow next year, is another. None of this, of course, will make up for the political and economic damage inflicted by Brexit, but at least an effort will have to be made to work constructively with the EU in the long run.

Does that mean we will have better outcome for Britain?

Sadly not.

A hastily cobbled-together patchwork deal, as is now most likely, may prove worse than No Deal. It will enable Johnson to sell this outcome to his voter base as a success and to continue blaming the Brexit fallout on the pandemic.

Phasing-in of tariffs will soften the blow to importers and consumers in January, but not eliminate the steep price rises that are certain to come, at a time when the UK economy, with an 11.3 percent decline, already suffers its worst recession in 300 years. According to the UK’s own Office of National Statistics, anything short of a free trade agreement with the EU would add another two percent decline in national output and push up the unemployment rate to 8.3 percent next year. The recovery from the pandemic would take until the third quarter of 2023, instead of late 2022.

And even at his best behaviour, Johnson is unlikely to move up the priorities list for a transatlantic deal. After all, the EU27 import three times more U.S. goods than the UK – and include Ireland.

The reality is that Brexit has broken Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with her former colonies and dismantled her status as the solid foundation of the U.S.’s transatlantic partnership within the EU. Joe Biden is good news for liberal leaders in the EU and across the globe – and bad news for Boris Johnson.