US presidential candidate Joe Biden’s recent warning that Britain must honour Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace agreement to secure a US trade deal adds new complexity to already tough trade talks between the United States and the UK.
“We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit,” Biden wrote on Twitter on Wednesday, referring to the deal that ended three decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland and created a shared regional government.
Biden was echoing Democratic House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s warning last week that any move by Britain to erect physical customs borders between British-ruled Northern Ireland and European Union member Ireland meant “no chance” for a US-UK
US President Donald Trump’s special envoy to Northern Ireland, Mick Mulvaney, also warned against “creating a hard border by accident.” The warnings come as US negotiators in the Trump administration wrap up a fourth round of trade talks with their British counterparts in Washington this week.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday the talks could “reach a successful conclusion before too long.”
No matter how they end, US law gives Congress authority over trade policy. Trump has sometimes sidestepped that authority on trade issues, but US and British officials have said they are aiming for a comprehensive agreement that would need Congress’s approval.
The US election on Nov. 3 is expected to leave the House in Democratic hands, giving extra weight to Pelosi’s words.
Both the US and Britain have other hurdles to clear as well, trade experts say.
“Removing the Good Friday Agreement is a nonstarter, but there are five or six other potentially really difficult issues that the two countries are still far apart on,” said Harry Broadman, managing director at the Berkeley Research Group and a former senior US trade official, including agriculture, the British healthcare system and Britain’s proposed digital services tax.
Asked about the Trump administration’s view on Thursday, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s office pointed to his June testimony to Congress, where he said there is no chance Congress would pass a trade deal if Britain put up borders in Ireland, violating the Good Friday Agreement.
“I’ve made that quite clear. The chairman (of the committee) has made it quite clear to me. The president agrees this is not something on which we’re going to have a negotiation,” he said.
The Good Friday Agreement is in jeopardy, some diplomats say, because of new legislation proposed by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
British trade officials have repeatedly said they are seeking a comprehensive trade deal and are not seeking to rush into an agreement before the US election, nor waiting to see who wins at the polls in November.
US and British trade negotiators were expected to discuss one of the thorniest issues between the two countries in the current round of trade talks: increased access for agricultural products.
British trade minister Liz Truss has pledged to drive a “hard bargain” with the United States, vowing that Britain would not diminish its food safety standards to import American products such as chlorine-treated poultry and genetically modified crops.
Britain wants access for lamb and beef exports to the United States.
Autos are the largest source of trade between the two economies, and another point of friction.
Britain maintains a 10% tariff on any US imports, four times the US tariff on British cars.
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