LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was among the first European leaders to congratulate US President-elect Joe Biden on his election victory.
“The US is our important ally and I look forward to working closely together on our shared priorities, from climate change to trade and security,” the British leader said.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab added in a separate message: “The UK-US friendship has always been a force for good in the world.”
But the expectation in both London and other European capitals is that Britain will have to work hard to re-establish the sort of special relationship it traditionally enjoyed with the United States.
For Mr Biden has publicly spoken against some of the key policy priorities of the Johnson government. And Mr Johnson and Mr Biden are hardly natural allies.
Mr Johnson’s biggest problem is that he is perceived by many of those likely to be influential members in the incoming Biden administration as just a British version of Mr Donald Trump.
There are certain similarities. Like Mr Trump, the British leader rose to fame because of media stunts. Both belong to the right of the political spectrum, but neither can be classified as mainstream politicians. They also faced scandals in their private lives, involving a multitude of female partners.
And, like Mr Trump, Mr Johnson has a record of using colourful language against his opponents, including a series of disparaging remarks about then President Barack Obama, under whom Mr Biden served as vice-president.
But beyond these superficial similarities, there is a world of difference between the British premier and the current US president. Mr Johnson works within a British parliamentary system which restricts his powers to an extent unknown to Mr Trump.
Furthermore, although Mr Johnson has tried to be friendly with President Trump, the two have never been chummy. The British leader fundamentally disagrees with Mr Trump’s approach towards Russia, or with the American President’s refusal to acknowledge the science behind climate change and the need to protect the environment.
And while both the American and British leaders view China as a strategic threat, they disagree about what needs to be done. For instance, Mr Johnson had to be pushed hard by Washington before agreeing to restrict the ability of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunication giant, to operate in British markets.
Still, perceptions matter, and the British government will have to work hard to dispel the prevailing view in the US media that London is less than happy about Mr Biden’s electoral victory.
And the snag for Prime Minister Johnson is that his key policy objective, which is to separate Britain from the European Union, is regarded by the incoming Biden administration as a big strategic error.
Mr Biden, who is very proud of his Irish ancestry, is also dead set against the creation of a hard border between Northern Ireland, which remains part of the United Kingdom, and the rest of the island of Ireland, which remains in the European Union.
The incoming US president has been explicit in his threat that, unless that question is resolved to the satisfaction of the Irish – who want no such border – Britain won’t be able to get a free trade deal with the US.
In reality, however, officials in London have known for some time that even if the new occupant of the White House is prepared to overlook the question of Ireland, the US House of Representatives, where the ethnic Irish lobby counts for a great deal, won’t ratify any trade deal with Britain until the matter is resolved. So, a British concession on this is inevitable.
Besides, a trade deal with Britain is hardly Mr Biden’s priority, so the British will have to wait for a bit longer regardless of what they do.
The real problem for Mr Johnson is how to prevent his country from being overshadowed by US attention to other European nations. For the US President-elect may revive the practice of Mr Obama, his Democrat predecessor, who treated Germany rather than Britain as America’s key European ally.
Still, the British have one enduring asset. Through a web of treaties tying the British and American intelligence services as well as the military and the defence manufacturing companies for many decades, the British have unprecedented access at all the levels of the US political and economic machinery, which they are now determined to exploit to the full.
So, although the public exchanges between Mr Johnson and Mr Biden have been cool, behind the scenes, a massive British engagement effort is now unfolding.
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