Senior Democrats have warned that any attempt by the UK government to backtrack on the Brexit agreement on Northern Ireland would jeopardize a future US-UK free trade deal and could hobble bilateral relations across the board if Joe Biden wins the presidency.
Biden, an Irish American, is a staunch defender of the Good Friday Agreement, of which the US is the guarantor, and which requires an open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“[Joe Biden] is committed to preserving the hard-earned peace & stability in Northern Ireland. As the UK and EU work out their relationship, any arrangements must protect the Good Friday Agreement and prevent the return of a hard border,” Biden’s chief foreign policy adviser, Antony Blinken, said on Twitter on Tuesday night.
People close to the Democratic presidential challenger said any UK move away from those parts of the EU withdrawal agreement that put the 1998 peace deal at risk would present a major impediment to a close relationship between London and Washington in the event of a Biden presidency.
Richard Neal, the chair of the House ways and means committee – which would have a decisive influence on ratification of a trade deal – said he had been repeatedly assured by British officials that there was no threat to the open border between the two Irelands.
“This just came out of the clear blue, nobody was talking about this 72 hours ago,” Neal told the Guardian. “Joe Biden shares my position on this issue entirely … It’ll be a very significant problem and I have also reiterated time and again to the UK government that I can’t imagine that we could develop a bilateral trade relationship if there was any return to a hard border.”
Democratic officials also said that if Boris Johnson proceeded with legislation that his own government admits would break international law, it would call into question the UK’s trustworthiness as a partner.
Even if Donald Trump secured a second term, bipartisan support for the Good Friday agreement in Congresswould probably dash any UK hopes of sealing a quick free trade deal after Brexit.
“The Good Friday Agreement and the broader peace process must be protected if the UK has any hope of obtaining congressional support for a potential US-UK free trade agreement,” Eliot Engel, the chair of the House foreign affairs committee, said.
“While I deeply value the US-UK relationship, it’s outrageous that Prime Minister Johnson is reportedly considering overriding critical parts of the withdrawal agreement that give Northern Ireland special customs considerations,” Engel said in an emailed statement.
“These steps are necessary to prevent a hard border on the island and throwing Northern Ireland back into the fast lane toward potential violence. I urge Prime Minister Johnson to abide by the legally binding agreements the United Kingdom agreed to and I call on the UK and the EU to continue to negotiate in good faith to seek out a smooth Brexit transition.”
Diplomatic sources in the US suggested that the UK government might not have fully thought through the ramifications of its abrupt announcement and had been taken aback by the pushback in Washington.
“It is mind-boggling that Johnson would even consider doing this. He is breaching the only red line Biden has when it comes to Brexit which is to protect the Good Friday Agreement,” said Thomas Wright, the director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “If he goes this route, the Irish border will dominate the first six months of the UK’s relations with a Biden administration and destroy any prospect of a much needed reboot in the relationship.”
Kim Darroch, former UK ambassador to Washington, said: “You could have a free trade deal, it could even be negotiated by a Republican president and get blocked in the House of Representatives.”
Darroch told BBC Newsnight he “wasn’t surprised to see a government lawyer resign because we stick by international agreements. It is one of the things we stand for.”