Joe Biden has too many domestic priorities to find time to negotiate a trade deal with the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson said ahead of a meeting with the American president in Washington on Tuesday.
A trade deal with the U.S. was billed as one of the prizes of Brexit so Johnson is under pressure to prove the biggest upheaval in British foreign policy in fifty years was worth it. As far back as 2016, then-President Barack Obama had cautioned Britain it would be “at the back of the queue” for a free trade agreement, known as an FTA.
“On the FTA, the reality is that Joe has a lot of fish to fry,” Johnson told reporters traveling with him to the U.S. “He’s got a huge infrastructure package, he’s got a build-back-better package,” he said, referring to the president’s $3.5 trillion tax and social spending package.
“We want to do it, but what we want is a good FTA, a great FTA,” Johnson said. “And I have quite a lot of experience of American negotiations, and they are pretty ruthless, the American negotiators. And I would much rather get a deal that really works for the U.K. than get a quick deal.”
Johnson meets Biden at a delicate juncture in international relations. A three-way deal to supply nuclear submarines to Australia announced last week has reinforced the idea of a special bond, underpinned by U.S.-U.K. security interests, even as the move infuriated the French.
A dinner with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison after the meeting with Biden will do nothing to dampen French anger at the deal that supplanted its longstanding sub contract. Johnson’s spokesman Max Blain denied the U.K. is expecting the French to retaliate.
Johnson also has a number of other tricky topics with which he needs help from the U.S., including the crisis in Afghanistan and, especially, how to accelerate momentum behind a stumbling global environmental summit, known as COP26, that the U.K. will host in Scotland next month.
The U.K. is focused on delivering on the promise made at a 2009 summit in Copenhagen, and renewed in Paris in 2015, that poorer nations were to receive $100 billion per year from 2020 to help them cut carbon emissions. But wealthy nations are stalling in their efforts. Biden’s stance will be critical to persuade others to follow suit.
On Monday Johnson told the United Nations, “The world will see and your people will remember and history will judge.”
The British delegation to the UN was cheered by comments from John Kerry, U.S. special envoy for climate, who told reporters, “I think we’re going to get it done by COP.”
“The U.S. will do its part,” Kerry said. “I’m not hoping. I’m telling you to stay tuned to the president’s speech.” Biden addresses the UN General Assembly on Tuesday morning in New York.
“I think the intervention from John Kerry was particularly important in terms of indicating that President Biden may say something very constructive tomorrow,” Alok Sharma, the U.K. president of COP26, told reporters in New York City.
However, it’s not clear the U.K. and the U.S. are communicating well. Johnson appeared to be taken by surprise on Monday when Biden announced he was lifting a travel ban for U.K. citizens to visit the U.S.
Johnson’s meeting with Biden will come under close scrutiny—not only because of the U.K. media’s obsession with the “special relationship” immortalized by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. There’s also the political ghost of Donald Trump, who openly admired Johnson but humiliated his predecessor, Theresa May.
With few opportunities for face-to-face meetings during the pandemic, the Conservative British leader has been unable to deploy his famous charm on the Democrat in the White House.
“I’ve only had long conversations with Joe Biden either on the phone or at Carbis Bay and then NATO,” Johnson told reporters, referring to the G-7 meeting in Cornwall, England, in June.
“You know, it hasn’t been a relationship that’s been very long in gestation,” Johnson said. “But it’s terrific, I mean genuinely terrific. We see eye-to-eye on all sorts of things. Have we bonded over any particular thing? He’s a bit of a train nut, as am I.”