US president Joe Biden and UK prime minister Rishi Sunak agreed an “Atlantic declaration” to strengthen economic ties between the two countries on Thursday, in a further sign of the allies turning their back on globalisation and trying to cut China out of supply chains.
The declaration aims to increase US-UK trade in areas such as defence, nuclear materials and the critical minerals used in electric-car batteries, as Biden tries to build “economic security” among western allies.
Mr Biden, speaking after talks between the two in the White House, endorsed Mr Sunak’s attempt to lead a debate on regulating artificial intelligence, including hosting the first global summit on the issue this autumn.
“We are looking to Great Britain to help lead a way through this,” Mr Biden said. “There is no country we have greater faith in to help negotiate our way through this.” He added: “We are in lockstep.”
In a sign of improving bilateral relations, Mr Biden is expected to travel to the UK in July as part of a trip to the Nato summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, having accepted an invitation from King Charles, according to people briefed on his agenda. Plans are not finalised and the White House declined to comment.
But Biden – who accidentally called Sunak “Mr President” – appears set on a charm offensive, insisting at a press conference that “no country is closer to us than the United Kingdom”.
British officials said the Atlantic declaration was an unsentimental attempt to forge a new US-UK relationship and it comes after hopes of a full-blown US-UK free trade deal – a dream of Eurosceptic Conservatives in Britain – were dashed.
The Atlantic declaration is a recognition by Sunak, a free-marketeer and opponent of state subsidies, that he must work with a Biden administration that is using industrial policy and tax breaks to promote green technology.
It seeks to secure special US deals for the UK similar to ones being negotiated by other allies such as Japan, Australia and the EU, to build up new supply chains that reduce reliance on China.
British manufacturers of electric cars using UK-made batteries – or products sourced from countries such as Japan with whom the US has a deal on critical minerals – will qualify for tax credits of $3,750 per vehicle under Mr Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, his flagship legislation promoting green technology.
Mr Biden has meanwhile committed to ask Congress to approve the UK as a “domestic source” under US defence procurement laws, which British officials claimed will allow speedier and more effective co-operation on new military technology.
The declaration also targets other niche deals, including a “data bridge” to cut red tape for small exporting companies.
The agreement includes a push for the mutual recognition of qualifications for engineers – and later accountants – although this could require state-by-state approval in the US.
Mr Sunak said people had questioned what sort of partner Britain would be after Brexit, adding: “Judge us by our actions.”
The prime minister said the UK remained an attractive investment destination and that Britain could now move “more swiftly and flexibly” to create new rules for emerging technology such as AI.
But British diplomats admitted some clouds still hung over the relationship, mirrored by the haze caused by Canadian wildfires that cast a pall over the US capital during Sunak’s visit.
On the positive side, the US and the UK have worked closely on Ukraine and on developing a military partnership – alongside Australia – to develop nuclear-powered submarines to counter China in the Pacific.
Mr Sunak also gained Mr Biden’s trust by tackling the post-Brexit dispute over Northern Ireland’s trading rules, although the US president said in May he had to travel to Ireland to “make sure the Brits didn’t screw around”.
“I’m lucky to enjoy a good relationship with president Biden,” Mr Sunak told reporters, while shying away from repeating the hackneyed British claim to enjoy a “special relationship” with the US.
But Mr Biden was a critic of Brexit, and Democrats cannot understand why Mr Sunak – who backed the UK leaving the EU – restricted the country’s influence in its own continent.
Nor do Mr Biden and the free-market Mr Sunak see eye-to-eye on the president’s policy of state subsidies to promote green technology. The UK Labour opposition, by contrast, is wholly signed up to the idea.
But both are facing the voters in 2024 – possibly fighting concurrent election campaigns next autumn – adding to a list of challenges bringing the two leaders closer together.
Duncan Edwards, chief executive of the BritishAmerican Business group, said the Atlantic declaration was “laudable” but warned it only signalled “intent rather than actual agreement” on many of the issues raised.
The British Chambers of Commerce said the declaration was “an important milestone” in developing closer transatlantic ties.
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023