U.S.-U.K. Relationship Is a Little Less Special After Brexit

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U.S.-U.K. Relationship Is a Little Less Special After Brexit

The Brexit agreement struck on Thursday has averted the prospect of a violation of the Good Friday peace deal.

Photo: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg News

Britain’s departure from the European Union and the legacy of the Trump administration means that the special relationship between the U.S. and U.K. isn’t what it once was.

But the agreement struck on Christmas Eve over post-Brexit relations between the U.K. and EU removed a major potential source of friction between Boris Johnson’s government and the incoming Biden administration in Washington.

President-elect Joe Biden and some other Democrats, including those with active Irish-American blocs in their districts, had bristled over the possibility that a no-deal Brexit would result in a hard border between the British province of Northern Ireland and Ireland and violate the Good Friday peace deal, which the Clinton administration helped broker in 1998.

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With a deal that avoids the need for tariffs between the U.K. and EU member Ireland, that prospect has been averted.

“I am glad to see that this deal preserves the Good Friday Agreement, which has maintained decades of peace for the British and European peoples and ensures that there will be no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland,” said Rep. Richard Neal (D., Mass.), chairman of the U.S. House’s tax and trade-focused committee. “I look forward to continued U.S. engagement with our trading partners across the Atlantic in the years to come.”

But even with this strain removed, in one important sense Brexit has reduced the value of the relationship with the U.S. because, since Jan. 31, the U.K. has no longer been in the corridors of power in Brussels, influencing EU decisions.

“There is no question that we have lost a significant element of our value to the U.S. by no longer being around the EU table,” said Kim Darroch, a former British ambassador to the U.S. and the EU, and national security adviser to the British government.

He said Washington used to consult London on a weekly basis on issues that it cared about in Brussels, from proposed EU legislation to relations with Russia. Now, London is no longer such an important conduit to or influence on Berlin, Paris and Brussels.

Britain will likely continue to be closer to the U.S. than other European capitals in some fields where there is a long association, including intelligence sharing and military cooperation.

And in many areas, the Biden administration’s approach to international affairs is likely to be more comfortable for the U.K. than that of the mercurial Trump administration, where allies would sometimes learn of major policy developments on the president’s Twitter account or from leaks from the White House.

President Trump is viewed by foreign-policy specialists as accelerating a shift back to great-power politics just as the U.K. had decided to leave one of the world’s great economic powers. Mr. Biden will seek to reverse some of Mr. Trump’s legacy but won’t be able to erase all of it.

President Trump with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in April 2019.

Photo: Steve Parsons/Zuma Press

British officials expect that Mr. Trump’s equivocal attitude to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will be replaced by a president more supportive of the alliance, and that Mr. Biden will move with allies to seek a common approach toward Iran, after Mr. Trump unilaterally pulled out of the nuclear deal still backed by the U.K.

As a country that has just pulled out of one of the world’s three big trading powers, the U.K. is also likely to welcome a more constructive approach to the World Trade Organization, which Mr. Trump sought to undermine.

A spokesman for the Biden transition team said the president-elect has made it clear that he will support a strong U.K. and a strong EU, and that the incoming administration looks to work with them to address the range of global challenges facing them all.

These include climate change. Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate-change accord, and Mr. Biden said he would opt back in. Mr. Biden has tapped former Secretary of State John Kerry as a special climate envoy, and the U.K. hosts the next United Nations-affiliated climate summit in November in Glasgow.

The U.K. will also host a summit of the Group of Seven major industrialized countries next year.

“The Americans will want to shape the outcome of both those meetings by working with us,” Mr. Darroch said.

Another likely area of cooperation with the U.S. and U.K. is on confronting China, which Mr. Trump mostly did alone but Mr. Biden hopes to undertake with more help from allies and partner countries. The EU is seen in Washington as more equivocal since it gives priority to economic ties.

In a tweet seen as a warning to Brussels, Biden adviser Jake Sullivan this week said the U.S. would like to consult on the future economic relationship of the EU and China as the two consider an investment pact.

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In two areas, there are important questions for London: trade and politics.

Mr. Biden will inherit Mr. Trump’s incomplete trade negotiations with the U.K. A free-trade deal with the U.S. would be a hugely important political signal for Mr. Johnson’s government, as a symbol of the U.K.’s freedom outside the EU to pursue its own trade policy. An agreement is also keenly supported by the right wing of his Conservative Party, which sees it as securing Britain’s distance over the long term from the EU’s economic and regulatory orbit.

U.S. trade experts say that completing talks on a comprehensive deal by the middle of next year is a tall order, given British sensitivities about opening up to American agriculture and ambivalence about trade deals within the Democratic Party. In July, legislation to ease the passage of trade deals will expire, making any comprehensive deal with the U.K. an arduous two-step process on Capitol Hill.

Trade deals aren’t likely to be Mr. Biden’s first concern as he takes office. When he does turn to the question, there is no guarantee the U.K. will be a priority for Democrats, compared with the larger EU economic bloc.

“I think we should look at what we would do with the EU first,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D., N.Y.), who starting in January will be the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Then we can look at the U.K. also,” he said in an interview Wednesday.

Still, trade came up in a recent call between Messrs. Johnson and Biden, and U.S. and U.K. trade officials have remained in touch since the election.

Katherine Tai, Mr. Biden’s pick for U.S. trade representative, has recent experience hammering out a compromise with fellow Democrats on the Trump administration’s new version of the North American trade pact. The sticking point in that deal—enforcing high labor standards for traded products—is something Washington and London broadly agree upon.

On politics, there is no evidence yet that Messrs. Biden and Johnson will develop a close personal relationship that some American presidents and British prime ministers have had in the past. While some lawmakers in Mr. Johnson’s party are sorry to see Mr. Trump depart, others question whether there was any tangible benefit to the U.K. from his embrace of Brexit and his apparent cozy relationship with Mr. Johnson.

That closeness and Mr. Johnson’s assertion in 2016 that President Obama may have had an “ancestral dislike to the British Empire” due to his “part-Kenyan heritage” means that for some allies of Mr. Biden in the Democratic Party, Mr. Johnson has work to do to build bridges with the new administration.

Write to Stephen Fidler at stephen.fidler@wsj.com and William Mauldin at william.mauldin@wsj.com

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