Prof. John Doyle and Prof. Eileen Connolly
The election of Joe Biden as the next President of the USA, has the potential to impact on the Brexit negotiations between the EU and the UK, in that it changes the UK government’s calculations on the probable attitude of a US administration to future developments in these negotiations. Firstly, the British Government will now need to factor in a potentially different view on the US administration’s attitude to fast tacking a trade deal post-Brexit, and secondly, it changes how the US will respond if there is a failure to reach an agreement on future EU-UK relations, with the result that there is a reimposition of a hard border on the island of Ireland. The negative reaction to the election of Biden by some key UK politicians and the conservative media has emphasised his Irish-American identity and therefore, in their view, his assumed antagonism to the UK, and it reflects a widespread view that they see Trump’s defeat as weakening their position vis a vis the EU. The question remains, however, whether they are correct in that assumption.
Joe Biden made his commitment to protecting the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement in the context of Brexit clear during the campaign when he tweeted,
“We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit. Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”
The serious intent behind this statement is underlined by the fact that it was made in the context of a diplomatic effort by British Ministers in Washington DC, in September 2020, to persuade US politicians that their Brexit strategy did not endanger the Good Friday agreement. Biden’s statement also builds on what has been a consistent line from leading US Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, over the previous year. Pelosi said in a speech to the Irish parliament that ‘if the Brexit deal undermines the Good Friday accords there will be no chance of a US-UK trade agreement’ and she repeated this view in August 2019.1 This consistent articulation is a further indication that Biden’s campaign intervention will be a firm policy position of the incoming administration.
If the British Government during the final weeks of 2020 negotiate a deal with the EU, which preserves an open border on the island of Ireland, they will have the support of the new US administration. However, if they leave the current transition period with no agreement in place on the future relationship between the UK and the EU, and in those circumstances seek to row back on the commitments already made in the Withdrawal Agreement, they will face hostility from Washington after 20th January and it will not be possible for them to secure a free-trade deal of any kind with the USA unless they are willing to make concessions on the question of the Irish border.
The first indications of how the UK government plans to react to these changed circumstances will be seen in the manner in which it deals with the controversial “Internal Market Bill” which would enshrine into UK domestic law a basis to renege on those aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement, with the EU, impacting on Northern Ireland.2 This bill was heavily amended by the British House of Lords, which removed these provisions. However, it is the stated intention of the Conservative Government to re-insert the deleted sections when the Bill returns to the House of Commons in December.3 The European Union has already said the Bill is incompatible with a negotiated deal on a future trading relationship. European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič stated that if the Bill were to be adopted, it would constitute an extremely serious violation of the Withdrawal Agreement and of international law.4 If the Conservative government proceeds to re-insert the relevant sections, it will be seen as an escalation of the aggressive stance they have taken, probably marking the end of negotiations. In these circumstances, it is likely that the that Biden transition team would express support for the position of the Irish government within the EU.
It has been clear for some time that UK negotiators including senior Cabinet ministers have not internalised the changed nature of their relationship with Northern Ireland which is represented in the Good Friday Agreement. The support given by the EU and the governments of its member states, throughout the Brexit negotiation process, for Ireland’s demand that there a should be no hard border on the island of Ireland, was a demonstration of the impact of the change in the recognition of sovereignty embedded in the Good Friday Agreement. The key aspects of the Agreement, the open border, the ongoing peace process and the increased level of cross-border integration, are now treated by the EU as matters of international concern, as they rest on an international treaty signed by the UK and by Ireland, a member state of the European Union. From this perspective, Northern Ireland is no longer purely a domestic matter for the UK, as its sovereignty, although still recognised, has been qualified by this international treaty which they signed. The support Ireland received is based on the recognition of the rights of the Irish Government, and of the nationalist population of Northern Ireland, under the Good Friday Agreement. It can in the future also expect support from the US Democratic administration on this basis.
If the Irish Government and the European Union, in the context of no agreement on the future relationship with the UK, accuse the British Government of breaching the Good Friday Agreement they are likely to receive support for that position from the Biden Presidency. While this probable outcome may not change the actions of Prime Minister Johnson’s Government, it will mean that the UK cannot re-assert its absolute sovereignty over Northern Ireland and have this assertion accepted by the wider international community, including the new US President and the European Union.
For a more in-depth analysis of these issues written before the US election see: Connolly, Eileen, and John Doyle. “Brexit and the Changing International and Domestic Perspectives of Sovereignty over Northern Ireland.” Irish Studies in International Affairs, vol. 30, 2019, pp. 217–233, www.jstor.org/stable/10.3318/isia.2019.30.13 [Open Access].
 Financial Times (London), 17 April 2019; The Irish Times 14 August 2019.