Biden-Johnson call: The ‘special relationship’ is off to a good start

US News

The state of the special relationship between Britain and America under a Biden presidency has been the focus of intense speculation.

Joe Biden and Boris Johnson are not political bedfellows. Mr Biden has referred to Mr Johnson as the physical and emotional clone of Donald Trump and is no fan of Brexit.

But Saturday’s phone call and its timing will be encouraging news for Downing Street.

Johnson Biden Pic: Andrew Parsons/ No 10 Downing Street
Image:
Boris Johnson spoke with Joe Biden on Saturday. Pic: Andrew Parsons/ No 10 Downing Street

President Biden did contact Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday and only got round to Mr Johnson the following evening but American presidents always contact their immediate neighbours first.

The fact the prime minister is the first world leader outside of North America to be called by President Biden suggests the so-called special relationship is in better shape than some had feared.

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Joe Biden was sworn in as president earlier this month

It was a wide-ranging call and focussed on what the two leaders can agree on, primarily tackling COVID-19 and climate change. Both leaders have made it clear they regard the two crises of paramount importance.

In a statement after the call, the White House said: “The president conveyed his intention to strengthen the special relationship between our countries and revitalise transatlantic ties, underscoring the critical role of NATO to our collective defence and shared values.”

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And it stressed the need for co-operation on shared challenges including “combatting climate change, containing COVID-19 and ensuring global health security”.

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Notably absent from the White House readout was any mention of discussion of a free trade deal.

A Downing Street spokesman put the emphasis on COVID-19, saying the leaders “noted the significant challenges facing the world during the pandemic, but also the unparalleled opportunities to build back better and greener together”.

“The prime minister warmly welcomed the president’s decision to re-join the Paris Agreement on climate change, as well as the World Health Organisation and the COVAX programme to ensure equitable access for vaccines.”

Security, defence, human rights and protecting democracy were also discussed, we are told.

In contrast with the White House readout, Downing Street says the two men talked about “the benefits of a potential free trade deal between our two countries, and the prime minister reiterated his intention to resolve existing trade deals as soon as possible”.

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Mr Johnson is hoping for a free trade deal in the wake of Brexit – something he had pursued with president Donald Trump. Both White House press secretary Jen Psaki and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen have in the last week poured cold water on hopes for a free trade deal, saying the administration would be too busy dealing with COVID-19 to make it a priority.

Fears of tensions in the special relationship may have been exaggerated, however.

Those who know President Biden well say he is not a vindictive man and is keen to start afresh with allies at the outset of his administration. Mr Johnson may have more to worry about with the people around Mr Biden who resent his description of president Barack Obama as part-Kenyan in a newspaper article.

The omens from this call are good. The two leaders have decided to focus on what they can agree on. The world is in too parlous a state to let minor differences get in the way. The two men can continue developing their own special relationship when they meet at the G7 summit in June.

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