British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) welcomes US President Donald Trump before the start of a round table meeting during the annual Nato Leaders Summit in Watford, England, on December 4, 2019. Photo: dpa
Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond

Trump vs Biden: how the US election result could influence Brexit talks

  • If Donald Trump wins a second term, Boris Johnson is more likely to feel emboldened to plump for no deal with the EU. Joe Biden, however, has long been opposed to the UK’s departure from Europe
As trade negotiations between the European Union and Britain come to a head this month, events more than 5,500km away in Washington may be as important as those in Brussels and London. In deciding whether to risk a no-deal Brexit outcome or drive harder for a breakthrough agreement, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is anxiously awaiting this week’s US presidential election result.
If US President Donald Trump wins re-election against the odds, Johnson may well interpret that as vindication that, with Brexit at least, he is on the right side of history. Trump, who came to power in 2016, the same year as the Brexit referendum, has been perhaps the most outspoken world leader in favour of Britain’s departure from the EU.
If the mercurial president wins a second term, Johnson is more likely to feel emboldened to plump for no deal with the EU, not least as a US-UK trade agreement may become an early priority of a re-elected Trump administration.
Such an agreement would be a significant victory for both Johnson and Trump. For the British prime minister, it would give some credence to his aspirations for a new “ global Britain” in a context where the nation’s relationship with the world’s other superpower, China, has eroded badly since the pandemic began. A trade deal would also be a boon for Trump, who is criticised in many quarters for being an anti-globalisation, protectionist president.


Final US presidential debate for Trump and Biden covers Covid-19, China and ‘thug’ Kim

Final US presidential debate for Trump and Biden covers Covid-19, China and ‘thug’ Kim

If, however, Joe Biden wins the election, Johnson could have more to lose than any world leader. This is not because Biden is anti-British; on the contrary, he was, for instance, a staunch supporter of London over the 1992 Falklands war with Argentina, which divided the Reagan administration despite the latter’s admiration of then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

The reason for Johnson’s concern is that Biden views him as a political soulmate of Trump, despite the many differences between the two men on key issues. This underlines the degree to which Johnson (who the White House has called the “British Trump”) may have misstepped diplomatically by putting so many of the UK’s diplomatic eggs in Trump’s basket.

Moreover, Biden has long been opposed to the UK’s departure from the EU, has said he would prioritise a trade deal with the EU over the UK, and has key concerns about the implications of Brexit for the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland (the former vice-president has Irish ancestry).

That is why a Biden win could significantly affect Johnson’s calculus on whether to go for a trade agreement rather than no deal with the EU. If Biden wins, the prospects of securing a UK-US trade deal would be shakier than before.

Tyres line a paintball field near the site of a former British watchtower overlooking the border with the Republic of Ireland on December 22, 2019, in Jonesborough, Northern Ireland. How to deal with the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is one of the sticking points in Britain’s exit from the European Union. Photo: AP

To be sure, there are key areas ripe for agreement whoever wins, including lowering or eliminating tariffs on goods. However, there are also icebergs on the horizon.

Specific areas of potential disagreement on trade include the prospect that harmonising financial regulations, given the international dominance of Wall Street and the City of London, would not necessarily be straightforward. Nor will it be easy to secure agreement in other sectors, including agriculture, where there are a divergence of views and strong interest groups.

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If Biden wins, perhaps the best Johnson can hope for is that the new president will quickly put aside personal and partisan differences and forge a constructive partnership built on the traditional ties between the two nations founded on demographics, religion, culture, law, politics and economics.

This will be supplemented by long-standing security cooperation, which has been at the core of the relationship, given the close partnership between the two nations in areas such as intelligence. On this specific agenda, it is even likely that Johnson will have more in common with Biden than Trump, given the latter’s views on issues such as the future of Nato and the West’s relationship with Russia.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at a drive-in rally event in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 27. Photo: Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS

Many uncertainties lie ahead in the special relationship, whether Trump or Biden wins. Johnson will be more nervous in the short term, however, if there is a change of president, and is likely to seek to play the role of a trusted but candid friend to Biden in a bid to make the relationship work as smoothly as possible. This may provide some protection for relations in what could be a rocky initial period, especially if strong personal chemistry fails to take root.

However, even this safety-first strategy is not without risk. While seeking the upside in the new relationship, Johnson would be wise not to overestimate the UK’s ability to shape US power, or be blind to the prospect that Biden’s outlook may care less for core British interests than in the past, as he increasingly looks to Germany and France for post-Brexit European leadership.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Johnson’s big quandary