Why Are You So Obsessed With Joe Biden And Brexit?

Anand Menon argues there are bigger fish to fry.
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Of course, it’s all about us. Rather than agonising over what the US election might mean for the climate crisis, for relations with China, or for the future of the world trading system, we are obsessed by what its implications are for Brexit.

Which is weird. But all the more so when you realise that the answer is “not that much at all”.

Think about it. The idea that the government is going to fundamentally change its approach to Brexit and strive harder to agree a deal on the future relationship because of the election of Joe Biden rests on some rather shaky assumptions.

First, that, had Trump won, he would somehow have helped us following a no-deal outcome. Certainly, the incumbent would have been happy to see the UK and its European partners at loggerheads, as they certainly would be if the Brexit negotiations broke down.

US President-elect Joe Biden
US President-elect Joe Biden
ANGELA WEISS via Getty Images

Yet, experience suggests he was as likely to see our resulting isolation as an opportunity to pressure us to make compromises – on China, on trade terms, on whatever – than to extend a helping hand to dig Boris Johnson out of a hole.

Second, the assumption that Biden changes everything flies in the face of the fact that, well before the vote in the US, the British government had made it clear that, whatever its ‘Trump-lite’ rhetoric domestically, it intended to carve out a niche for itself internationally as a defender of liberal internationalism.

On Russia, Iran, and the Paris climate agreement, the British government took issue with the approach of the man in the White House.

Third, the notion that Johnson was willing to risk a no-deal outcome because of a desire to cuddle up to Trump thereafter ignores the sheer unpopularity of the latter with the British people.

By October 2020, 58% of respondents thought Trump had been “a terrible president”, with the figure for “good” and “great” combined standing at 11%. For a government as sensitive to public opinion as ours, the idea of basing a strategy on the (unfounded) assumption that we could cosy up to a deeply unpopular president makes little sense.

Then, there are the facts. Assuming the government is interested in the fate of the British economy, the forecasts paint a pretty clear picture. According to our own work at the UK in a Changing Europe, if we accept (as most economists do) that restrictions on trade affect productivity, the kind of deal currently being negotiated would result in a permanent drop in per capita income to the tune of -6.4% over the long run. The equivalent figure for a no-deal outcome would be -8.1%. Even assuming President Trump would have agreed to an ambitious trade deal following no-deal, the forecast gains would be trivial in comparison – 0.07-0.16% of GDP in the long run, according to the government’s own figures.

This is not to say that there is no rationale for failing to reach an agreement. There are those within the UK government sufficiently committed to “taking back control” that they will not want to sign up to any agreement that involves commitments on regulatory standards or subsidies.

For them, the political imperative of sovereignty trumps (apologies) economic considerations. Again, however, the position of the United States is of secondary importance, though the irritation of the Biden team over threats to resile on our obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement is real enough (though far from the only reputational consequences should the government follow through on them).

I’m not claiming for a moment that the identity of the US President is or should be absent from the calculations of the government. If nothing else, to the extent that Johnson oscillates between his more “Trumpist” and more “liberal” instincts, the election will provide a fillip to the latter.

That being said, if the argument that “it will annoy the US president” really is the clinching argument against a no-deal outcome in the corridors of Downing Street, one has to wonder either about the quality of advice the prime minister is getting, or about whether he has grasped the implications of that advice.

Consequently, I’m not convinced that events over the Pond will be a determining factor when it comes to what happens to Brexit. Or at least, for the sake of what faith I have in the UK government, I hope to God it won’t be.

Anand Menon is director of UK in Changing Europe, and professor of European politics and foreign affairs, King’s College London

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