Ursula von der Leyen – What the Biden administration means for Ireland, Europe and the UK
Over the past four years, Ireland has contended with a tepid relationship with Washington to the west alongside a strained one with London to the east, as Brexit became a reality.
Donald Trump backed the UK’s exit from the EU suggesting Britain would be “better off” and that the issue of the Irish border would “work out”. His administration promised to expedite a free-trade deal with London.
These positions strengthened Boris Johnson’s hard-line stance domestically and undermined Ireland’s concerns over the impact of a “no deal” Brexit on our border with Northern Ireland.
In contrast, Joe Biden was resolute about the importance of avoiding a hard border on the island, and he is a passionate Irish American.
His Irish roots are central to his political and personal identity and he has a fondness for quoting Irish poets including James Joyce and Seamus Heaney.
However, Mr Biden’s interest in Ireland goes beyond the poetic and the personal. From early on in his career, he took an interest in the Irish peace process and was involved with the congressional Friends of Ireland.
When the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was considered under threat from London’s Internal Market Bill, Mr Biden tweeted an unambiguous warning to Mr Johnson that any trade deal between the UK and US would “be contingent on respect for the agreement”.
It’s likely that the GFA will ensure Ireland remains central to any trade negotiations between Washington and London over the coming years.
These factors will raise Ireland’s profile and enhance its soft power internationally. There is an opportunity to position the state as a conduit between the US and EU and boost our political capital in Brussels.
US House Representative Brendan F Boyle recently described Ireland as a “geographical and cultural bridge” between the US (due to a shared language and similar legal systems) and the EU.
Furthermore, Ireland has secured a non-permanent seat on the powerful United Nations Security Council where tensions between some of the Permanent Five are significant.
However, Ireland’s position as a base to a number of US “Big Tech” companies puts it in the political crosshairs in relation to possible transatlantic disputes around EU data privacy regulations, cybersecurity and the EU’s proposed “digital tax”.
While Taoiseach Micheál Martin may not make the traditional trip to Washington for St Patrick’s Day this year, a visit by president Biden, perhaps on his way to the UN climate convention in Scotland, would serve to showcase Ireland’s unique relationship with the new administration.
The EU was relieved by the change in administration in the US. European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen warmly welcomed Mr Biden’s inauguration stating “Europe now has a friend in the White House” after “four long years”.
Prominent European leaders had a fraught relationship with former president Donald Trump.
The EU and the US shared political values and cultural heritage will help, and the Europeans can expect a return to civil discourse and diplomacy.
Chancellor Merkel said in her congratulatory message to Mr Biden, the “transatlantic friendship is indispensable if we are to deal with the major challenges of our time”.
President Biden’s policy platforms demonstrate his commitment to multilateralism. International co-operation is essential to effectively manage complex global issues like the climate crisis, cybersecurity or even future pandemics.
Such moves will be welcomed in the EU and there will be an opportunity for early collaboration between the two powers to promote global economic recovery following the pandemic.
President Biden is interested in developing a “carbon border tax” to encourage states to meet their targets under the Paris Accords and to ensure that American businesses and workers are not competitively disadvantaged by US compliance. Von der Leyen has championed a similar strategy so this may offer a another chance for co-operation.
The Biden administration’s emphasis on reviving democratic norms internationally (and domestically) will resonate with European leaders.
German foreign minister Heiko Maas welcomed Mr Biden’s plans saying “we are ready to work with the United States on a joint Marshall Plan for democracy” as Brussels has struggled with authoritarian tendencies of its own.
Recently, Hungary and Poland threatened to veto the EU’s budget if it made funding to states conditional on adherence to the rule-of-law — a founding principle of the union.
Both states are accused of backsliding on democratic principles around human rights, judicial independence and the freedom of the media.
President Biden wants to build a united front to hold China to account in relation to human rights abuses, labour laws, climate and trade practices.
The incoming administration was irritated when the EU went ahead and inked an investment deal with China in the light of Beijing’s crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong and its internment of millions of Uighurs.
The EU’s response to such crackdowns has been anaemic, at best. Jake Sullivan (now US National Security Advisor), had urged the Europeans to delay until they could consult “on our common concerns about China’s economic practices”.
Other potentials for friction include the ongoing dispute over state subsidies to airline industry giants Boeing (a US company) and Airbus (European/UK owned), NATO spending and the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
Although president Biden will reiterate the US commitment to NATO, the US is still carrying much of the spending burden in the alliance and will expect European member states to increase their contribution.
The US congress recently authorised sanctions aimed at disrupting the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany and the Biden administration is similarly unenthusiastic about the project.
In the UK, Boris Johnson benefited from Trump administration support and antagonised Mr Biden in the past when he made a racist reference to former president Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage back in 2016.
However, since the election, the prime minister has worked to court the incoming administration.
London backed away from its threat to renege on elements of the Brexit withdrawal treaty which would have jeopardised the GFA.
Mr Johnson condemned Mr Trump for encouraging the Capitol riot and undermining the US presidential election results stating “I believe that was completely wrong”.
Downing Street is sending four cabinet ministers to Washington DC over the coming weeks but it is likely that the UK will now have to wait in line behind the EU for the chance to negotiate a free-trade deal with the US.
Glasgow is host to the UN Climate Change Conference this November and president Biden hopes to attend. This will offer Downing Street an opportunity to impress on the White House the two states’ shared priorities and re-emphasise the historic bonds of the “special relationship”.