It was with some relief that Boris Johnson told journalists after his first meeting with Joe Biden that the US president had not made clear his alarm about views clear events in Northern Ireland. “No, he didn't,” Johnson insisted.
The fact is that Biden didn’t need to. He had already deployed a preemptive strike, via the American Embassy in London, which expressed “grave concern” about the deepening UK-EU dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol to Brexit minister David Frost a week earlier. The leaked Whitehall version of this tense meeting said the US “implied that the UK had been inflaming the rhetoric” and urged it to “keep it cool.”
Johnson will be relieved that Biden did not go public on the Northern Ireland issue – initially, at least—after their 90-minute meeting in Cornwall. Speaking afterwards, the president hailed a “very productive meeting” and focused on his announcement that the US will buy and donate 500m doses of the Pfizer vaccine to some of the world's poorest countries.
Unusually, there was no joint press conference, which suited Johnson as one might have brought their differences over Northern Ireland into the open. Downing Street's claim of "complete harmony" on the issue was probably overstated. But it was able to say the two leaders “reaffirmed their commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and to protecting the gains of the peace process” and “agreed that both the EU and the UK had a responsibility to work together and to find pragmatic solutions to allow unencumbered trade between Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.”
There was just a hint in there of Biden urging both sides to compromise to make the protocol work for all sides. Johnson could live with that, though whether London and Brussels now act on it remains to be seen.
While the tension between Johnson and Biden over Northern Ireland is real, there was plenty of genuine common ground between them. Fears that the new administration would view Johnson as a “mini-Trump” have not materialised. Luckily for Johnson, the pair have been driven together by events on which they broadly agree: recovery in the wake of Covid-19; the climate crisis and forging an alliance of democratic nations to stand up to autocracies such as Russia and China. Johnson is holding the ring at a time when it suits Biden to revitalise the ailing G7 and will also chair the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November. “Biden is being very supportive on climate change,” one UK official told me.
So it was easy to agree their new “Atlantic Charter,” an echo of the 1941 agreement between Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt mapping out their goals for the post-war world. Johnson was careful to avoid the s-word – special – as he trumpeted a “partnership” that is “more important than ever” and described Biden as "a breath of fresh air." He is right to believe “special relationship” makes the UK appear “needy.” Biden didn’t quite stick to this script, reaffirming “the special relationship” and saying he did not use the phrase lightly. Perhaps Biden has been on the scene for so long that it is hard to get used to a British prime minister who doesn’t want to hear the words.
Johnson won a nod to a future UK-US trade deal, though it is not an immediate priority for the Biden administration. There was a commitment to work towards resuming quarantine-free travel between the two countries, though Washington is in less of a hurry than London amid fears about the Indian variant in the UK.
The meeting was a sign that the triangular UK-US-EU relationship has changed. Outside the EU, the UK can no longer be at the apex, trying to act as a bridge between Europe and America. Although Biden would not have wanted the role, the US is now at the top, trying to bridge differences between the UK and EU which threaten to undermine his drive to bring democratic nations together. Hopefully, the global perspective of the G7 discussions starting on Friday will remind Johnson he should not let the narcissism of small differences with Britain’s neighbours derail the greater project. The real enemy is seen as being in Beijing and Moscow, not Brussels.
That would mean Johnson showing greater respect for EU institutions rather than pretending they do not exist while he engages with individual EU leaders. It would also mean working constructively with the European Commission to defuse the growing crisis over Northern Ireland. Biden would welcome that, and might even award Johnson some precious brownie points, boosting the prime minister's chances of making "Global Britain" a success.