Johnson aims to build on dialogue with Biden

UK foreign policy updates

Boris Johnson will meet US President Joe Biden at the White House on Tuesday off the back of several diplomatic victories for the UK but with potentially awkward issues lurking near the surface.

British officials were pleasantly taken by surprise ahead of the meeting by the US decision on Monday to allow people fully vaccinated against Covid-19 to travel to the US from the EU and UK from November.

The UK prime minister had been expected to push his US counterpart to reconsider the ban during their meeting but had played down his chances of making any headway this week.

Hailing relations with America as the strongest they have been in decades, Johnson has marked a clear distinction between the Biden and Trump administrations ahead of the bilateral in Washington.

“As we go to Washington our relations with the USA are about as good as they have been at any time in decades,” Johnson told reporters on his flight to the US. “When we last flew out a couple of years ago we had all sorts of pebbles in the shoe.”

Relations between London and Washington were greatly soothed ahead of Johnson’s trip after the allies joined forces with Canberra to forge a new Asia-Pacific defence alliance, Aukus, in which Australia will acquire new nuclear-powered submarines. Johnson will have dinner with Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, on Tuesday evening.

The announcement of the pact followed a more testing period of transatlantic diplomacy after Britain was openly critical of Biden’s decision to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by the end of August. The two leaders are expected to discuss efforts to prevent a humanitarian crisis in the region.

Earlier this year Biden raised concerns over Johnson’s handling of the post-Brexit settlement in Northern Ireland, warning that disputes with Brussels should not threaten the Good Friday Agreement that ended the region’s three-decades long Troubles.

And UK hopes of clinching a trade deal (FTA) with the US — seen as one of the biggest prizes of Brexit — will take a back seat as Johnson admitted he would not push Biden to reopen talks during their meeting.

“On the FTA the reality is that Joe has a lot of fish to fry,” Johnson told reporters. “He’s got a huge infrastructure package, he’s got a build back better package. We want to do it, but what we want is a good FTA, a great FTA.

“I would much rather get a deal that really works for the UK than get a quick deal.”

Asked about Johnson’s personal relationship with the president, Johnson said: “Look, I’ve only had long conversations with Joe Biden either on the phone or at Carbis Bay and then Nato. 

“It hasn’t been a relationship that’s been very long in gestation. 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. He likes trains which is a good thing.”

A senior Biden administration official said the president and Johnson would discuss a range of global issues, including Aukus, Afghanistan, the climate crisis and COP26 — the UN summit Johnson is hosting in Glasgow in November, democratic renewal, and inclusive economic growth.

“They will also continue the conversation from their last bilateral meeting in Cornwall on the margins of G7, including on Build Back Better World, Covid-19, and other areas on our bilateral relationship,” said the official.

The Johnson and Biden administrations share an increasingly hawkish tone on China and are aligned on the need for tougher action against climate change.

“For all their differences, ultimately when it comes to the [UN] general assembly, they [the US and the UK] are on the same page, because the overarching UK goal at this general assembly is to lobby people as hard as possible to get serious about COP26,” said Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group.

“I think there is actually quite a lot of nerves now because there is a sense that they’re not going to pull together a really sort of decisive set of pledges in Glasgow.”

Johnson’s meeting with Biden comes at a point of high Franco-US friction after Paris decided to withdraw its ambassador to the US in the wake of the Aukus announcement, which left out Paris.

Biden has asked to speak to France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, but Paris has yet to set a time. A French ambassador said the Biden administration was approaching its attempts to repair the relationship in a “transactional” manner.

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