Why does Brexit row over Northern Ireland matter to Joe Biden and what is his influence over it?

US said to have warned UK against ‘inflaming’ tensions over Northern Ireland Protocol

Adam Forrest
Thursday 10 June 2021 12:39 BST
Biden declares ‘United States is back’ to cheering troops as he arrives in UK

Joe Biden is set to intervene in the UK-EU’s post-Brexit trade dispute when he meets Boris Johnson for the first time on Thursday.

The US president will tell the prime minister not to let the row over Northern Ireland’s trading arrangements put peace at risk when the pair meet in Cornwall this afternoon ahead of the three-day G7 summit.

G7 summit live: Latest developments ahead of world leaders’ meeting

In the US president’s first overseas visit, aides said he will stress the need to “stand behind” agreements made in the Northern Ireland Protocol, the element of the Brexit deal which has triggered a huge row.

What influence can Joe Biden really have on trade disputes?

Mr Biden’s close interest in Brexit-related issues affecting Ireland will mean that the dispute over the protocol will feature heavily in discussions with both UK and EU leaders over the coming days of intense diplomatic activity in Cornwall.

The US president took the extraordinary step of ordering America’s most senior diplomat in London, Yael Lempert, to deliver a “demarche” – a formal diplomatic reprimand – in a meeting with Brexit minister David Frost last week, according to The Times.

The newspaper reported that government minutes of the meeting said: “Lempert implied that the UK had been inflaming the rhetoric, by asking if he would keep it ‘cool’.”

The US diplomat is said to have indicated that if Mr Johnson accepted an EU offer to follow the bloc’s rules on agricultural standards, Mr Biden would ensure that it would not “negatively affect the chances of reaching a US-UK free trade deal”.

Until now, the Downing Street has rebuffed the EU’s offer of “agri-food” alignment, fearing any agreement tying the UK to the bloc’s standards would damage the chances of a comprehensive free trade deals with other parts of the world.

Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden (left) arrive in Cornwall

Why does Joe Biden feel the need to intervene?

The US president is intensely proud of his Irish roots and has taken a keen interest in protecting the Good Friday Agreement. He has already shown he is willing to make his views known at various stages of the Brexit process.

When the UK government was threatening to unilaterally re-write parts of the Brexit withdrawal deal with its Internal Market Bill last autumn, Mr Biden warned: “Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the [Good Friday] Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border.”

Much has been made of the fact of the president’s ties to Ireland. “Mr Biden, a quick word for the BBC?” he was asked in 2020. “The BBC? I’m Irish,” he replied with a smile – before walking off.

Mr Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Air Force One: “President Biden has been crystal clear about his rock-solid belief in the Good Friday Agreement ... That agreement must be protected, and any steps that imperil or undermine it will not be welcomed by the United States.”

The DUP’s Ian Paisley Jr has previously criticised Mr Biden’s interventions as “pure politics,” claiming he does “not understand the actual detail”.

But Colum Eastwood, leader of the SLDP, disagrees. The social-democratic leader has said: “I’ve met Joe Biden on a number of occasions, he understands Northern Ireland. He gets the context of why we need the protocol.”

How will Boris Johnson respond to Joe Biden’s interventions?

The prime minister brushed off concerns expressed by the US on Wednesday. Mr Johnson claimed that resolving the protocol dispute with Brussels was “easily doable”.

The PM told reporters that it was possible to reach a compromise that “protects the peace process, but also guarantees the economic and territorial integrity of the whole United Kingdom”.

It’s surely the same line Mr Johnson will be using with Mr Biden today. But talks between Lord Frost and his EU counterpart Maros Sefcovic on Wednesday failed to produce any sign that a compromise is on the horizon.

Lord Frost has refused to rule out the prospect that the UK could unilaterally delay imposing checks on chilled meats due to come into force at the end of the month as part of the protocol agreement.

The EU has threatened to slap tariffs and quotas on British exports if the UK fails to implement checks on goods entering Northern Ireland under the terms of the divorce settlement which Mr Johnson signed.

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