US president Joe Biden recently visited the UK. Boris Johnson has been attempting to use the trip as a way to shore up his ever-worsening performance as prime minister. But unfortunately for him, the rest of the world doesn’t seem to be buying his desperate efforts.
A new ‘Atlantic charter’
On 9 June, Biden began his first overseas visit since entering office in January. He was in the UK to meet with his British counterpart and, afterwards, attend the G7 summit in Cornwall. During the visit, Biden and Johnson agreed to a new version of a binational deal called the ‘Atlantic Charter’. Biden said the purpose of the revised agreement is to cooperate on addressing the “key challenges of this century – cyber security, emerging technologies, global health and climate change”.
The White House released a statement adding that the major goals of the charter are to:
deepen cooperation in democracy and human rights, defence and security, science and innovation, and economic prosperity, with renewed joint efforts to tackle the challenges posed by climate change, biodiversity loss, and emerging health threats.
Trying to dump association with Trump…
It seems both Biden and Johnson have tried to use the visit as an opportunity to improve their respective countries’ image and standing in Europe. Johnson’s handling of Brexit has created a rift in his relationship with the European Union (EU). Biden must make amends following the presidency of his predecessor Donald Trump. As The Canary reported, Trump’s time in office saw a deterioration in relations between the US and its traditional allies in Western Europe. Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, for instance, was condemned by several EU member states.
Meanwhile, Johnson has been characterized as a close ideological ally of Trump by both Biden and Trump himself. Trump once described Johnson as “Britain Trump”. And Biden called him Trump’s “physical and emotional clone” during the 2020 presidential campaign. It appears, however, that Johnson wants to use Biden’s visit as an opportunity to distance himself from the far-right former reality star. Following their first meeting, Johnson described Biden as a “breath of fresh air”, though without mentioning Trump by name.
…but apparently not succeeding
Johnson’s attempts to use the visit to present himself as a great statesman, however, may not be enough. On 11 June, for example, the New York Times, published an article titled, Boris Johnson Is a Terrible Leader. It Doesn’t Matter. The article points to the multiple scandals facing Johnson, including allegations of corruption, alleged cronyism in the allocation of government contracts, and damning testimony from his former aide Dominic Cummings about his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. The New York Times is the US’s third most widely circulated newspaper. And the publication of this article indicates how little Johnson is respected in a country that’s the UK’s supposed ‘number one ally’.
Johnson also committed a gaffe over the customary exchange of gifts. As part of a long-standing tradition, the visiting leader and host give each other gifts. They usually contain some kind of symbolic significance for the recipient or their home country. Biden gave Johnson a custom-made bicycle with matching helmet that cost around $6k. It featured an elaborate design with the two countries’ respective flags printed on the frame. Johnson, meanwhile, gave Biden a photograph of US anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass. The image was reportedly obtained digitally for free from Wikipedia. The remarkable difference in value and effort between the two gifts has raised eyebrows. And it’s put Johnson’s judgement into question in both US and UK media. It’s also exceedingly hypocritical given the racist views Johnson has expressed in the past.
Tensions over the north of Ireland
Perhaps the facet of the trip to draw most attention, meanwhile, was the ongoing debate over the status of the north of Ireland. Following Brexit, Johnson’s government granted the north of Ireland a special status called the “Northern Ireland Protocol”. It means that the north of Ireland would continue to follow EU trade regulations. It also attempts to keep an open border without disparities in regulations between the north and its neighbor, the Republic of Ireland (an EU member state). However, there have been indications that Johnson might attempt to water down (or even withdraw) this status as part of his hardline Brexit agenda.
Before the trip, Biden warned that an EU-UK trade row might risk destabilizing the Good Friday Agreement, the peace process which ended 30 years of armed conflict in the region. Concerns about the implementation of the protocol have been raised by some of the area’s major parties including Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Alliance Party, and the Green Party Northern Ireland.
During the visit, Johnson attempted to play down differences by stating that the UK, US, and EU are in “complete harmony” over the matter. He rejected suggestions that Biden had privately expressed his alarm to him about the situation. However, shortly after Johnson completely changed tack. He reiterated his intention to suspend the protocol during a meeting with EU heads of state. But French president Emmanuel Macron quickly hit back by stating firmly that “nothing is negotiable” when it comes to this issue.
Biden has not yet responded, but Johnson’s cowardly about-face will surely enrage the US premier. And it’ll further damage Johnson’s already lowly reputation in the US and around the world.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons – Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Flickr – Winniepix, and Wikimedia Commons – The White House
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