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Biden and Truss talk Brexit with special relationship at stake

Biden and Truss talk Brexit with special relationship at stake
Liz Truss, UK prime minister, delivers her first speech as premier outside 10 Downing Street in London, UK, on Tuesday, 6 September 2022.

With Liz Truss as the new UK prime minister, the “special relationship” with the US is on course for redefinition with a conservative leader who is more of a Brexit hard-liner than her predecessor.

President Joe Biden spoke to his counterpart on Tuesday afternoon, in a conversation that will set the tone for the future working relationship of two allies that have been historically close but do not always see eye-to-eye. 

The White House’s description of the call alluded to the potential friction between Biden, a Democrat, and Truss, a Conservative who underwent a political transformation and went from being anti-Brexit to one of its most dedicated cheerleaders.

The leaders “discussed their shared commitment to protecting the gains of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the importance of reaching a negotiated agreement with the European Union on the Northern Ireland Protocol,” the White House said in a statement. 

Before the call, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre emphasised the need of “preserving peace, stability and prosperity for the people of Northern Ireland”. 

Biden was openly critical of the UK departing the European Union and given his Irish-American background felt particular concern about how a UK government could undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which drew a line under three decades of violence in the region.

The worry is whether Truss, who succeeded Boris Johnson, could tear up key parts of the Brexit deal that keeps Northern Ireland in the bloc’s single market for goods to avoid imposing a hard border on the island of Ireland. 

The transfer of political power comes at a tricky juncture for UK-EU relations as the deadline approaches for Truss’s government to respond to reactive legal proceedings launched by Brussels accusing the UK of four infringements to the Northern Ireland treaty. The deadline for the response is 15 September.

Truss is seeking to meet Biden when she makes her international debut at the United Nations General Assembly later in September, according to a person familiar with her thinking. 

Sealing a free trade agreement with the US was once touted as the biggest benefit of Brexit by its biggest advocates, including Johnson and Truss, yet it’s something that has scarcely been mentioned of late.  

Truss’s domestic in-tray is laden with an announcement on energy this week and tax plans next, leaving her less bandwidth for pursuing trade deals with a reluctant American president. 

But the White House did say that the Biden-Truss conversation included “securing sustainable and affordable energy resources”. Cooperation on Ukraine, China, and the Iran nuclear talks were also mentioned.

Most pointedly, Truss is less keen on the “special relationship”, a term fetishised by the Tory press to describe the personal affinity between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

Last year, on the fringes of the annual Tory party conference, she said she sees the relationship with the US as “special but not exclusive”, comparing the jostling of nations positioning to be close to the US as a “beauty contest”. 

The UK, she told the audience, shouldn’t be “worried like some teenage girl at a party if we’re not considered to be good enough. I just don’t see it like that”. BM


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