Biden’s UK visit puts focus back on ties

Hosting US president, Johnson will stress special bond but priorities likely to differ

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives an update on the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic during a virtual press conference inside the new Downing Street Briefing Room in central London on May 14, 2021. (Matt Dunham / POOL / AFP)

The signs were good when Joe Biden took over as president of the United States that the so-called traditional special relationship between his country and the United Kingdom had not been irreparably damaged.

In spite of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's closeness to Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, and damage done to sectarian disputes on the island of Ireland by the UK's exit from the European Union, to say nothing of Brexit itself, Biden immediately announced his first overseas visit as president would be to the UK. That event starts on Thursday.

After his victory in November, Biden was understood to have telephoned Johnson before any other European leader. The call, according to Johnson's spokesman, included talk about "the benefits of a potential free-trade deal".

That call, and Biden's eagerness for a face-to-face meeting, will doubtless have been most welcome to Johnson, who must have feared an icy exchange.

EU and UK officials have been meeting to try to resolve their differences over the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, which was part of the Brexit divorce deal and which aims to avoid a hard border

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Now, with Biden expected in the UK for both his meeting with Johnson and for a G7 summit set for Friday to Sunday, London will, doubtless, be doing all it can to ensure the special relationship goes from strength to strength.

The White House agrees it will be a focus, saying the trip will "affirm the enduring strength of the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom".

But, while Johnson will undoubtedly want to talk about that relationship, he will be keen to get down to the specifics of a future free-trade agreement in the wake of the UK's voluntary exit from the European Union in January and the resulting falls in imports and exports.

Repairing damage

Biden, however, seems to have a trade deal low on his priority list and is keen, instead, to focus on repairing damage done to Washington's reputation during the "isolationist" Trump years.

His press secretary, Jen Psaki, told reporters: "This trip will highlight his commitment to restoring our alliances, revitalizing the trans-Atlantic relationship, and working in close cooperation with our allies and multilateral partners to address global challenges and better secure America's interests."

The Financial Times said one of those "interests" is likely to be Biden's desire to restrain China.

He also showed a tough side when he announced a new 25 percent tax last week on some imports from the UK that he immediately suspended for six months, to allow time for negotiations on a global corporate minimum tax rate.

Austria, India, Italy, Spain, and Turkey have also been threatened with a new tax on their exports to the US if they aim taxes at US technology giants, The Guardian reported.

Against that backdrop, Biden's idea of a global minimum corporate tax rate went down very well at a meeting of G7 finance ministers ahead of the G7 leaders' summit. G7 nations will now require companies pay a minimum corporate tax rate of 15 percent.

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And those from G7 countries with subsidiaries in low-tax jurisdictions will be compelled to pay more tax at home to bring their contribution up to 15 percent.

The Financial Times said Biden, who will have been buoyed by the G7's acceptance of his idea, is also likely to want to talk about the situation in Northern Ireland, which has been plagued by sectarian violence ever since the UK left the EU, and the contested border between Northern Ireland and EU member the Republic of Ireland has returned to the fore.

EU and UK officials have been meeting to try to resolve their differences over the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, which was part of the Brexit divorce deal and which aims to avoid a hard border.

One unnamed EU diplomat told The Financial Times: "Biden could be instrumental in helping to put the process back on track. There's no mystery around the fact that Biden wants this solved."