Former US president Barack Obama kicked up a storm on a visit to Britain back in 2016 when he warned that the United Kingdom would be at the “back of the queue” in any trade deal with the United States if the country opted to leave the European Union.
Obama, on a state visit just two months before the Brexit vote, was vilified by Brexiteers for his surprise intervention in what they claimed was a domestic issue.
However, the US leader insisted he had a right to respond to claims that the UK would easily be able to negotiate a fresh trade deal with the US, one that superseded the UK’s existing trading arrangements with the US as a member of the EU.
“They are voicing an opinion about what the United States is going to do; I figured you might want to hear from the president of the United States what I think the United States is going to do,” Obama said.
“And on that matter, for example, I think it’s fair to say that maybe some point down the line there might be a UK-US trade agreement, but it’s not going to happen any time soon because our focus is in negotiating with a big bloc, the European Union, to get a trade agreement done,” he said.
Brexiteers suspected Obama’s intervention had been organised by Downing Street and then prime minister David Cameron to sway dithering voters. The proof, they claimed, was the word “queue”. Americans would typically say “back of the line”.
Either way, Obama’s warning has proved accurate. A trade deal with the US – the jewel in the Brexit crown – is not even on the agenda. It literally hasn’t been mentioned since Brexiteers took power, something the opposition is bizarrely quiet about.
UK prime minister Rishi Sunak is understood to be pushing for narrower pact covering “critical minerals” – used in the manufacture of technologies such as mobile phones, computers and semiconductors – in tandem with other countries and the EU.
Such a deal is aimed at providing UK companies, particularly car exporters, with access to some of the large green subsidies offered under President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. The US is Britain’s second-largest market behind the EU.
Sunak is understood to have raised the issue with President Biden in Belfast last week but talk of a major trade deal appears off the agenda for now.
It’s clear that UK relations with Washington are strained. They’ve been on a different setting since Brexit, reflecting the link between Brexiteers and former president Donald Trump. Brexiteers wanted out of the EU; Trump wanted anything that would destabilise the EU.
Having White House officials deny Biden “hates the United Kingdom” on the back of assertions by former Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster hasn’t helped matters and seems an ocean away from the “special relationship” the UK normally talks about when a US president visits.
Daily Telegraph contributor Nile Gardiner echoed Foster’s comments, claiming Biden had “gravely insulted” the UK by lecturing it on Ireland and for his refusal to attend the forthcoming coronation of King Charles III.
“Yet the harsh reality remains that America today is led by a petty and at times vindictive president, who thinks nothing of lecturing Britain over its Northern Ireland policy, and issuing stark warnings to Downing Street that a US/UK trade deal will not be on the agenda unless it plays ball over Irish issues and the EU,” Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation, said.
Biden, however, sees the North’s peace process as one of the crowning achievements of US foreign policy and an embodiment of a stable world order now under threat from Russia and China. Prioritising the restoration of powersharing in the North is merely an extension of his politics and not, as Foster or Gardiner claim, an act of “anti-Britishness”.
To date, the UK’s trade deals – there have been more than 70 – have been either copy and pastes of the ones they had as a member of the EU or in some cases inimical to UK interests. The ones done with the Australia and New Zealand appear to prioritise the latter’s food exports, while a Japanese deal has led to a downturn in trade between the two countries.
This will obviously change as the UK regains its global footing and as the worst of the Brexit instability, which seems to have peaked under Liz Truss, fades. Ministers have signed an agreement for the UK to become a member of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trading bloc of 11 nations including Japan, Canada, Australia and Mexico.
The UK is still, however, set to be the worst performing of the 20 biggest economies in the world this year, according to the International Monetary Fund – and that list includes sanctions-hit Russia.
It’s too simplistic to blame Brexit entirely but it is a major factor. Leaving the EU has shrunk the economy there by 5 per cent and damaged trade with the EU while aggravating inflation and employment shortages.
Brexit began negatively affecting the UK economy as early as 2020 but the impact was masked by the pandemic. The constant drip feed of negative data is now weighing heavily on sentiment.
Ipsos polling in January indicated that 45 per cent of the population thought Brexit had made their daily life worse, compared with just 11 per cent who said it had improved their lives.