Why ruling out US trade deal strengthens Liz Truss’s hand in Brexit talks

·3-min read
Joe Biden and Liz Truss are meeting in New York with the Protocol set to feature in their discussions. - AP
Joe Biden and Liz Truss are meeting in New York with the Protocol set to feature in their discussions. - AP

The Prime Minister has strengthened Britain’s hand in negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol by admitting a UK-US trade deal is off the table.

Remainers mocked Liz Truss for conceding there would be no free trade agreement for many years before her meetings with Joe Biden and Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, in New York.

A bumper deal with Washington was often cited as one of the major prizes of leaving the EU by Brexiteers, including Boris Johnson.

But the Prime Minister’s apparent show of weakness has the double benefit of neutralising US and EU attack lines before Protocol negotiations reboot in earnest.

Ms Truss has warned she will use the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill to override the agreement if a deal to cut Irish Sea border checks cannot be struck.

Mr Biden, who is hugely proud of his Irish ancestry, is convinced reneging on the Brexit treaty would put the peace process at risk. He intends to make his concerns clear to the Prime Minister at their meeting on the margins of the UN General Assembly.

Senior Democrats have repeatedly warned that a UK-US trade deal would be vetoed by Congress if the UK was to tear up the Protocol.

While a deal was a distant possibility during the otherwise protectionist presidency of Donald Trump, its chances dramatically decreased when Joe Biden was elected.

Mr Biden ruled out any new free trade agreements until US industries had recovered from the economic hit of the coronavirus pandemic.

Threats to veto a deal, when negotiations were not even taking place, were always a paper tiger but valuable ammunition to opponents of Ms Truss’s hardball Protocol strategy.

Dublin and Brussels could point to an influential ally’s disapproval as proof that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which overrides the treaty, breaks international law.

Ms Truss has now defanged the paper tiger. Whether this is to lay the groundwork for using the Protocol Bill or for putting the UK in a stronger position ahead of Protocol talks with the EU, or both, remains to be seen.

Race to the bottom

A US trade deal is not universally popular in Britain. Opponents argue it would start a “race to the bottom” in food safety standards and bankrupt British farmers unable to compete with a flood of cheap meat from huge US farms.

Britain has not substantially changed these inherited EU food regulations, long derided as protectionist by Washington, since Brexit.

It is true the US would demand the UK change its food safety standards, such as the EU’s ban on chlorinated chicken, to allow greater imports of American agricultural goods.

Meanwhile, Brussels has been on high alert for a British bonfire of EU regulations since Brexit. This is partly motivated by fears the Protocol opens a back door to its Single Market by removing checks on the Irish land border.

The Protocol means checks are carried out on goods and animals entering Northern Ireland from Britain to ensure they meet EU standards in case they cross into member state Ireland.

A US trade deal, or even the possibility of it, strengthens EU arguments for checks tough enough to ensure none of the flood of “substandard” US produce ends up leaking across the Irish border into Ireland.

Ruling out the trade deal allows the UK to press for maximum leniency in the Protocol border checks in negotiations with Brussels, which now appear increasingly likely after recent talk from London and Dublin of a “landing zone” for a deal.

The slaughter of this Brexit sacred cow may have been a surprise, but it is also good strategic sense.