LONDON — If Boris Johnson delivers on threats to go nuclear over the Brexit deal covering Northern Ireland, he can expect a friend-zoning from Joe Biden.
Britain this week threatened to take unilateral action to override the so-called Northern Ireland protocol amid efforts to renegotiate the terms of the deal signed in 2019.
It’s already earned a stinging rebuke from U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a leading Democrat, who said Congress “cannot and will not support a bilateral free trade agreement” with the U.K. if it undermines the arrangement.
She’s not alone: Joe Biden’s administration takes a keen interest in protecting peace on the island of Ireland, after a decades-long conflict ended with a fragile peace agreement.
Washington and London’s trade ties have seen a gradual warming over recent months — but the expectation is that this will be plunged back into the deep freeze. And the U.K.’s being warned to expect the passive-aggressive treatment.
“The response will be very subtle and it will be hard to decipher,” explained Alexander Bobroske, an expert on relations between the U.K., U.S. and EU. at the Global Counsel advisory firm. “I don’t think it would be anything explicitly said,” he noted — but brace for “foot-dragging” on trade ties into the summer as Biden’s team waits to see how the spat unfolds.
The response will also depend on whether Britain actually makes use of the weapon it’s giving itself. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss vowed this week to bring forward legislation allowing it to make unilateral changes to the protocol, with officials briefing that the move could come in the first half of June if the EU refuses to meet U.K. demands.
London wants an easing of the customs formalities imposed on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland under the protocol. Brussels has set out its own options for reform, but warns further concessions would undermine the EU’s cherished single market. The U.K. government is also facing intense pressure from the Democratic Unionist Party, which sees the protocol as driving a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. and is refusing to join the power-sharing government there without major changes.
But Washington has long warned that moves to override or tear up the protocol could put the 1998 Northern Irish peace deal — the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement — at risk, and has been urging London to step back from the brink.
The warnings will become even louder in the coming days, with a Congressional delegation led by Democrat Richard Neal, who shares the administration view, set to land in Britain.
Britain has faced an uphill battle to get its message across to a political establishment in Washington that is often pro-Irish, thanks to centuries of Irish emigration to America.
Though the role of Irish Republicanism in America has changed from the times when it helped the IRA’s armed campaign through fundraising in Irish strongholds like Boston and New York, it remains a powerful force.
Sinn Féin took out full-page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post last year calling for a United Ireland, and the party still has a formidable fund-raising operation in the United States.
The issue spans the U.S. political divide too. Mick Mulvaney, special envoy to Northern Ireland during the Donald Trump administration, told the BBC this week that “if folks start unilaterally changing an agreement it makes it difficult to move forward on future deals.”
While Pelosi’s warning Thursday is likely to resonate in London, the prospect of a free-trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. has looked slim ever since Biden entered the White House. Even the bullish chief British negotiator Crawford Falconer admitted at an event this week that the process had “stalled.”
Yet the U.K. move comes at a time of genuine movement in some aspects of the trade relationship between the U.K. and U.S. A series of “dialogues” have just been launched to discuss ways in which bilateral trade could be improved, and there has been a resolution to a long-standing dispute on U.S. steel tariffs.
Britain still covets the post-Brexit prize of a trade deal with the U.S., with the U.K.’s International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan telling Bloomberg this week there could be movement towards one during 2022.
That thawing looks likely to come to an end if the U.K. follows through on its protocol threats.
“Just so everyone knows the landscape and the reality of Congress,” said William Keating, a congressman and chairman of the subcommittee on Europe, “there would be no free trade deal and it would be a step backwards in terms of trade relations — something that I don’t think anyone wants.”
Others argue the Biden administration could go harder than just cutting off the current trade dialogues and kicking the prospects of an FTA further into the long grass.
“Just cutting off these nascent trade dialogues doesn’t really seem to move the needle,” said Garrett Workman, a senior director of European affairs at the U.S.-U.K. Business Council. “So there might be pressure to do more than that.”
While Britain’s warning this week raised hackles in Brussels, it may have cooled its jets amid fears of a U.S. backlash. For a long time, London had been briefing that it would go all-out and bring forward the actual bill granting it power to ignore parts of the protocol this week. In the end, Truss left the prospect open — but it remains a war of words rather than actions.
“The administration and those on the Hill who take a close interest in this want this to be resolved without any theater around it,” Northern Ireland Minister Conor Burns told the Times during a recent diplomatic offensive in Washington. “That’s our wish too.”
Indeed, the Biden administration was relieved that Truss failed to follow through on the threat this week, as it feared Britain would take more immediate action and refuse to negotiate further, according to a person with an understanding of White House sentiment.
Biden is said to fear the use of Article 16 even more, a clause in the protocol allowing either side to ignore its provisions in a crisis. The U.K. appears to have gone cold on the idea of using that particular weapon.
Brussels is confident that it has Biden on its side in the row. One EU official said the threat of retaliation from Washington acts as a “game changer,” and that Biden is taking an even keener interest in the row to avoid splits in Western unity amid the war in Ukraine.
“They don’t want any wrong messages going to President Putin,” the person said. “But the U.S. leverage is over the U.K. rather than us.”
Indeed, expectations are that the U.S. will take a lead from the EU in its response to unilateral action.
London, of course, takes the opposite view from its interlocutors across the Channel. “The U.S. is less of a factor than it used to be,” a government official said. “It’s been less aggressive about it and the bilateral working on Ukraine has helped. We definitely seem to be running scared less than we used to when it comes to Washington.”
Yet British behavior when it comes to the U.S. paints a different picture. After Burns’ charm offensive in Washington, Truss spoke on the phone to Pelosi to try to reassure her. That effort appeared to have borne little fruit Thursday.
Others are less interested in soothing concerns across the Atlantic. David Frost, the former chief Brexit negotiator, warned last week that Biden should back off from the issue. “We don’t need lectures from others about the peace process,” he told an event in Washington.
Suzanne Lynch, Doug Palmer and Gavin Bade contributed reporting.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Richard Neal’s name.
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