Biden and Johnson stage a renewed friendship between Washington and London

The President of the United States and the British Prime Minister sign a new Atlantic Charter evoking the one sealed by Churchill and Roosevelt in 1941

4 min
Jill Biden, Joe Biden, Boris Johnson and Carrie Johnson, this Thursday, in the first graphic session that the president of the United States and the British prime minister, accompanied by their wives, have done in Cornwall before meeting in a bilateral session prior to the G7 summit

LondonJoe Biden and Boris Johnson met on Thursday in Cornwall, in front of Carbis Bay, southwest England. Johnson was once described by the US President as the "physical and emotional clone" of Donald Trump, in December 2019, when Biden was still just another aspirant for the Democratic candidacy. It was their first face to face meeting as leaders of their respective countries. Johnson has turned the page and forgotten Biden's previous words, despite the fact that at that time the Prime Minister must have received it as a well-deserved compliment. Biden has also turned the page on Johnson's wish to appear internationally as the most accomplished colleague of the man with the permanent angry gesture and orange skin. Johnson, in fact, went further. And, at the end of the meeting, in front of the television cameras, he called Biden's presence in the White House "a breath of fresh air".

The reason for such an abandonment of the past: the laws of high-flying international diplomacy and the need to strengthen and renew transatlantic relations at a time when Russia and China are seen, or are once again seen, as elements of destabilization of Western democracies.

The first recorded words of the two leaders sounded a bit like a script for a late-night talk show from the 80's. Biden commented: "I told the prime minister that we have one thing in common: we have both married beyond our stations". Johnson just a little over two weeks ago married his third wife, a woman twenty years younger than him. And picking up the gauntlet of a statement that, without too much fuss, could be called condescending at best, he has replied as follows: "I will not disagree. I won't disagree with the President on this or, for that matter, anything else; I think that's very likely". The very brief media session then turned into a small chaos of questions shouted from the press with no answers from the leaders. Meanwhile, the host made a gesture to the guest as if to say: "The press, you know, they never change".

The persistance of the media, however, has a very concrete purpose. It is that for the first time in a bilateral meeting between the head of the United States and the tenant of Downing Street, a joint press conference has not been scheduled afterwards. Why? Perhaps because, deep down, there are as many reasons for agreement and cooperation just as there is, at least one, for disagreement. And that is the British attitude towards the application of the Brexit Protocol in Northern Ireland, which is causing no small amount of tension between Brussels and London. Accusations have come from Belfast of intransigence on the part of the Europeans, and threats from Brussels to introduce tariffs on trade if the United Kingdom does not comply with what has been agreed. Unsurprisingly, in the morning, at a press conference from Brussels, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, assured: "What has been agreed has to be implemented".

In this sense, in the joint statement released by Downing Street at the end of the meeting, we can read: "The Prime Minister and the President reaffirmed their commitment to the Belfast Agreement (Good Friday) and to the protection of the peace process. The leaders agreed that both the EU and the UK have a responsibility to work together and to find pragmatic solutions to allow uncompromised trade between Northern Ireland, Britain and the Republic of Ireland". A compromise text to avoid offending British sensibilities after Washington warned London that peace on the island is not to be trifled with.

No controversy

The British, and especially Boris Johnson, know perfectly well that Biden thinks that Brexit has destabilized and weakened the Western allies, but that it is necessary to bite the bullet and move forward. At the same time, the United States led by the Democrats need to present themselves to the world as the leaders of the liberal democracies, as the isolationist Trumpism era has now come to an end. Therefore, the staging of the meeting was intended to avoid any controversy or friction. The two had the incentive of portraying that, beyond personal disagreements, judgments or comments from the past, the Washington-London relationship is stable and works like a well-oiled machine.

Beyond the differences in personalities and the situation, the truth is that the institutional relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is enormous: at the diplomatic, administrative, security, defence and commercial levels. Biden has made a very explicit gesture by meeting Johnson first, before the G-7 and his trip to Brussels. And he also brought with him the symbolic signing of a renewed Atlantic Charter - to guarantee economic cooperation on sustainability, security and technology - which evokes the one that Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt signed in 1941. This occurred in the midst of the Second World War, when Churchill travelled to the United States to seal a collaboration that would become fundamental in the fight against the Nazis. The two countries also agreed to set up a working commission to restore normal air traffic as soon as possible after the pandemic.

This Friday, however, is the official start of the meeting of the G-7, the club of the seven richest countries in the world. The European Union will also attend, represented by the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the head of the Council, Charles Michel. The issue of Northern Ireland and Brexit is expected to come up again, despite the fact that it is not on the official agenda.

However, Downing Street is confident that it has successfully convinced Washington that a post-Brexit UK is not part of a new problem in Northern Ireland, but just another piece of the solution to the big challenges. Challenges on the official agenda of the G-7 which, in principle, will be focused on combating the pandemic, the fight against climate change prior to the United Nations Climate Summit (COP26) in Glasgow in November, and the strengthening of liberal democracies in the face of the aforementioned threats from Russia and China.