Biden, Sunak highlight stronger economic ties but impact of Brexit lingers

US and UK announce Atlantic declaration to boost trade in areas including defence, critical minerals

“We don’t have a closer ally than Great Britain”, US president Joe Biden said as he welcomed British prime minister Rishi Sunak to the White House on Thursday.

Sunak for his part described the links between London and Washington as “an indispensable alliance”.

The two men signed a new “Atlantic declaration” – essentially a blueprint for increased co-operation and trade in areas such as defence and critical minerals used, for example, in electric car batteries.

Biden also backed moves by Sunak for the UK to provide leadership in regulating artificial intelligence.


“We are looking to Great Britain to help lead a way through this”, he said at a press conference.

The two leaders stressed their support for Ukraine and their co-operation on the AUKUS deal to provide Australia with nuclear submarines in the Pacific.

But the provisions of the new declaration seem to fall well short of the over-arching free trade deal with the United States which Brexiteers had coveted following the departure of the UK from the European Union, although supporters argue it is more fitting in a world of competition with China and in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Brexit and, in particular, its impact on the Belfast Agreement in Northern Ireland has been at the root of much of the recent tension between Washington and London.

Early in the Biden presidency the Times newspaper in the UK reported that the US had formally reprimanded London over its dispute with the EU regarding the Northern Ireland protocol, suggesting that this was “inflaming” tensions in the region.

The US played down suggestions it had issued a formal diplomatic protest, however, it was no secret that Washington was frustrated with the row between the Johnson administration and Brussels.

The Biden White House wanted the EU and the UK to reach a deal, particularly in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and it strongly backed the Windsor framework agreed earlier this year.

However, an interesting insight into Biden’s thinking came last month when he departed from his prepared script at a campaign reception to tell guests he had gone to Ireland a few weeks earlier “for the Irish accords, to make sure ... the Brits didn’t screw around and Northern Ireland didn’t walk away from their commitments”.

The White House press conference on Thursday appeared a little stage-managed. There were no questions to the president about Brexit or Northern Ireland or about allegations levelled by unionists and those on the right in the UK that he is “anti-British”.

But what is the real state of relations?

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank in New York, and a former US special envoy to Northern Ireland, said while Sunak was widely viewed positively, Brexit had damaged the traditional relationship between London and Washington.

He told The Irish Times that Sunak was seen as “a capable, reasonable person”.

“There may be elements in Trump World or other places that miss Boris Johnson, but I don’t think that’s widely held.”

Haass said he believed that with Sunak “there’s something of a collective sigh of relief after several of his predecessors”.

“That doesn’t change the reality that I’d say the US/UK relationship has, lost some of its some of its heft, some of its weight”.

Haass said that most informed Americans continued to think that Brexit was an enormous error.

He said US/UK relations would continue to be cordial but would be “somewhat less significant” adding that one of the most important positives for Washington from the US-UK relationship in the past was that Britain was a member of the EU. He said Britain could be a voice or could be a counterweight, if needed, to France or Germany.

Haass said that while Britain was still in Nato, relations with Washington were now narrower.

Ted Bromund, senior research fellow at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Conservative Heritage Foundation, said US/UK relations were “like an iceberg”.

“The part below the water, which is by far the largest part, is in very good shape. That is the financial relationship, the trade relationship, the defence relationship, the educational relationship, the cultural relationship, and so on. The part above the water, the part you can see, the political part, is not in very good shape.

“And that is because over the last 15 or so years, US relations with the UK have become a partisan, or perhaps an ideological issue in the United States in a way that they have not been since before second World War”.

He said in recent years US political parties had identified with particular foreign countries, and in that sense the UK is seen as a Republican country, although this did not mean the British public would vote for the Republican Party.

While Biden had presided over a deterioration in US/UK relations, Bromund said he had not ignored London and negotiated trade deals with other countries.

He said Biden was “not interested in doing a trade deal with anyone”.