As 10 Downing Street congratulated Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on their election victory, behind the scenes there were presumably slightly more mixed feelings. For the British government, Biden’s election could also have a big impact on the event caused by the second biggest shock of 2016: Brexit.
REMIND ME WHERE WE ARE WITH BREXIT?
First let’s catch up: Brexit has already happened. We left the EU on the 31st January. But since then we have been in the “transition period”. We have continued to follow all of the EU’s rules and regulations so that the government has the time to negotiate a new trade deal with the EU.
At 11PM on New Year’s Eve, the transition period ends and one of two things will happen: Either the new trade deal with Europe will kick in, or if we haven’t successfully agreed one, it will be the dreaded “No Deal” outcome.
In other words, this in the moment when shit gets real. The latter senario is where tariffs and other barriers immediately come into force and Britain is left twisting in the wind.. This could involve queues of lorries in Kent, further economic crisis, and more chaos generally.
That could be where we are heading. The clock is still ticking, and the negotiations so far have been fraught. Both sides acknowledge that they are still far apart on several crucial issues, such as fishing rights and whether Britain should adhere to the EU’s “level playing field” rules that would prevent Britain from, say, offering financial support to British car makers that directly compete with German car makers.
WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH THE US ELECTION?
Brexiteers were hoping that the economic hit of Brexit could be counteracted by Britain making a trade deal with the United States. Donald Trump styled himself as “Mr Brexit” and Nigel Farage was a regular fixture at his campaign rallies, so the thinking was that his administration would be warmer towards doing a trade deal with Britain.
But soon, whether or not he decides to go quietly or has to be dragged out of the White House by the Secret Service, Trump will be gone.
In his place will be President Biden. In many respects, his presence on the international stage will be welcomed by Britain. America will once again work with Britain on shared interests like climate change, NATO and preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
But on Brexit, Biden has a very different attitude compared to his predecessor.
“Had I been a member of Parliament, had I been a British citizen, I would have voted against leaving,” Biden told the Chatham House think tank in 2018. On the campaign trail, Biden also routinely likened Johnson to Trump. So their personal relationship is likely to be a little frosty.
But here’s the perhaps surprising thing: This doesn’t really matter. And the reality of the situation has been clear for some time. Whether it was Biden or Trump in the Oval Office, a trade deal with the US was never going to happen anyway.
Even if Trump liked Brexit, arguably the only consistent policy view Trump expressed throughout his four years in office was his hostility to multilateral trade agreements. He ended American involvement with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an enormous trade deal with a bunch of countries in the Asia Pacific region. He threatened to pull America out of the World Trade Organisation. He campaigned against “globalists”, and started a trade war with China. Needless to say, it probably wasn’t the most conducive atmosphere for a trade deal.
So the good news for British trade deal hopes is that Biden is a return to the boring, pre-Trump status quo of an America that promotes trade deals and globalisation.
THE BAD NEWS
The bad news though, is more structural and doesn’t depend on the Presidency. It boils down to two main points: Ireland and agriculture.
America has a sizeable Irish diaspora, with around 32 million Americans – one in ten – identifying themselves as having Irish ancestry. As such, concerns over Northern Ireland run deep. And many American politicians in both the House of Representatives and Senate worry that Brexit may upset the delicate peace that Bill Clinton helped promote in the 1990s.
In September, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House and one of the most powerful politicians in the US, said there would be “absolutely no” trade deal for Britain if the UK does anything that could affect the Good Friday Agreement.
Biden himself has waded in directly too. “We can’t allow the Good Friday agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit,” he tweeted in September.
A US trade deal would almost by definition put the UK into a different regulatory orbit to the Republic of Ireland. This would probably require more border controls and customs checks, and would otherwise make the Irish border less invisible. So it would be a tough sell to many US politicians.
As for agriculture, there are enormous irreconcilable differences in terms of the actual substance of what a trade deal might say.
For example, to do a trade deal, Britain would need to accept lower standards, or to somehow persuade American farmers to accept more stringent rules. Both of these would be political non-starters: Due to the way the the Senate works, farming interests are massively over-represented, so it’d be impossible to pass the deal, or conversely, we can easily imagine the weeks of headlines and memes if Johnson tries to force chlorinated chicken on to the British people.
So these two barriers would make a US deal if not impossible, but incredibly difficult to achieve anyway.
IF IT WAS NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN ANYWAY, WHAT’S CHANGED?
Ultimately, President Biden is going to enforce two big changes to the way Britain approaches Brexit.
On substance, it is going to box Britain in. The dream of a US trade deal is even more dead now, and Biden’s administration will be deploying its diplomatic pressure on Britain to keep it from doing anything that it believes may further imperil peace on the island of Ireland.
And it’s not just a Britain/Ireland thing. Democratic, and basically all mainstream Republican policy makers in Washington have long believed that a strong EU is a good thing for bigger strategic reasons, as a strong bloc of countries that support both democracy and capitalism are good for the US. So the Biden administration will surely push Britain towards a softer Brexit deal, which keeps Britain close to Europe.
And finally, it also changes the mood music around Brexit. Johnson was reported to be waiting until the results from the US came in before deciding whether to risk a No Deal Brexit or not. It’s a pretty nonsensical approach to take, but if Trump had won, Johnson would have thought that “history was going his way” and he would still have had an ally in the form of Trump to show that Britain wasn’t alone in the world.
While there is still a significant possibility that Britain could end up crashing out of the transition period with No Deal, it changes the dynamic and the incentives. Britain will now see a much greater need to conclude a deal with Europe, and to make it happen by the end of the year it may mean accepting what is functionally a much softer Brexit.
Otherwise it would mean that Johnson and Britain may just manage the strangely impressive feat of upsetting both Europe and America simultaneously.