Johnson calculating Biden will put ‘special relationship’ before Belfast Agreement
Underestimating US president may prove costly
US president Joe Biden boards Marine One outside the White House for the first leg of his trip to Europe, during which he will meet British prime minister Boris Johnson. Photograph: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg
Boris Johnson’s meeting with Joe Biden on Thursday has long been viewed as a moment of peril for the prime minister, with the US president set to challenge him over his government’s refusal to implement the Northern Ireland protocol. But Johnson is so confident that Biden will not rock the boat that he allowed his Brexit minister David Frost to offer two fingers to the European Union, Ireland and the United States after Wednesday’s meeting of the protocol’s joint committee in London.
London has upped its game in Washington, sending an official from the Northern Ireland Office to lobby Congress and targeting members of Biden’s White House staff. Their message is that, although the protocol was agreed between Britain and the EU as the best way to protect the peace process after Brexit, its implementation is undermining the Belfast Agreement.
“The problem we’ve got is the protocol is being implemented in a way which is causing disruption in Northern Ireland and we had some pretty frank and honest discussions about that situation today,” Frost said after Wednesday’s meeting with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic.
Frost has rejected EU proposals that would eliminate 80 per cent of checks on goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland and he repeated his threat to use “all options” if the EU does not agree to rewrite the rules of the protocol. This is code for breaching the protocol by unilaterally extending grace periods for measures due to come into force at the end of June, as Britain has already done this year.
Sefcovic made clear that the EU’s patience is almost spent and that further unilateral action could trigger retaliatory action, including the imposition of tariffs on British goods and limits on access to the EU market for British services.
He dismissed a report that the EU is considering imposing checks on goods between Ireland and the rest of the EU if Britain continues to refuse to implement the protocol, declaring that Europe’s solidarity with Ireland is unconditional.
Johnson’s calculation is that Biden’s solidarity with Ireland and that his commitment to the peace process is more negotiable and that he will prioritise the “special relationship” with Britain over the protection of the Belfast Agreement, widely viewed in Washington as one of the most important US foreign policy achievements in recent decades.
Biden has been underestimated throughout his career, most recently during last year’s presidential campaign. Ireland’s hope, and the British government’s fear, must be that Johnson is just the latest politician to make the same mistake.