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Biden and Johnson focus on strong ties and deal with differences

PLYMOUTH, England (AP) – Their nations may have a famous ‘special relationship’, but President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will meet for the first time on Thursday amid both political and personal differences .

Biden hopes to use his first trip abroad as president to reassure European allies that the United States has abandoned the transactional tendencies of Donald Trump’s tenure and is once again a reliable partner. But tensions may simmer beneath the surface of Biden’s meeting with Johnson.

The president has strongly opposed the Brexit movement, the British exodus from the European Union that Johnson has championed, and expressed great concern about the future of Northern Ireland. And Biden once called the British leader a “physical and emotional clone” of Trump.

The UK government has worked hard to overcome this impression, pointing to Johnson’s common ground with Biden on issues such as climate change and his support for international institutions. But Johnson, the host of the Group of Seven summit that will follow his meeting with Biden, has been frustrated by the lack of a new trade deal with the United States.

But both sides have stressed that, publicly, the Biden-Johnson meeting will be about reaffirming ties between longtime allies in a week in which Biden will seek to rally the West to fend off Russian interference and publicly demonstrate that ‘it can compete economically with China.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called Biden’s initial calls with Johnson “warm” and “constructive” and downplayed the differences between the two nations’ goals.

“They’ve been very hard at work,” Sullivan told the White House this week. “And I expect their meeting to cover only the waterfront. I mean, really, a wide range of issues that both the US and the UK agree on.

Biden, who is fiercely proud of his Irish roots, warned that there would be no trade deal if controversial Brexit-related legislation planned by the Johnson government undermined the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement in Ireland North. Some on the British side viewed Biden with suspicion because of his heritage.

After Brexit, a new arrangement was needed for the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, as the European Union requires that some goods be inspected and others not not allowed at all. Ahead of the June 30 deadline, ongoing negotiations over goods – including sausages – were controversial and caught the attention of the White House.

“President Biden has been very clear about his steadfast belief in the Good Friday Agreement as the foundation for peaceful coexistence in Northern Ireland,” Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One as Biden flew into the air. for England on Wednesday. “Any measure that endangers or undermines it will not be welcomed by the United States. “

The two leaders were also due to discuss climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, the creation of an infrastructure financing program for developing countries, Afghanistan and a reminder of the old Atlantic Charter. 80 years between the two nations, Sullivan said.

The new charter will build on the historic joint statement made by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941, setting goals for the post-war world.

But Trump’s presence was still likely to be felt on Thursday. Johnson and Trump, for a time, seemed like soul mates, both riding a wave of populism that in 2016 sparked Brexit and turned the American political landscape upside down.

Biden, for his part, expressed his distrust of Johnson, who once unrolled a Trump-like insult from President Barack Obama, saying Biden’s former boss was “half Kenyan” and had a dislike ancestral for Great Britain.

“Has Donald Trump irrevocably damaged relations with Europe? I think the answer is no, ”said Thomas Gift, director of the Center on US Politics at University College London. “But I think it created challenges that Biden is going to have to overcome.”

Since World War II, the transatlantic “special relationship” has been sustained by a common language, shared interests, military cooperation and cultural affection. Sometimes this was reinforced by close personal ties, like the friendship between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, or between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

It endured even when leadership relations were less cordial, such as when British Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to join the Vietnam War in the 1960s.

“There is much more that unites the government of this country and the government of Washington at any time, at any stage, than what divides us,” Johnson told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

Brexit could test these bonds. The United States continues to appreciate Britain’s role as a European economic and military power and a member of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance. But Biden has made it clear that he intends to rebuild bridges with the EU, a frequent target of Trump’s wrath. This suggests that Berlin, Brussels and Paris, rather than London, will be at the forefront of his thoughts.

Britain hoped to secure a quick trade deal with the United States after its official departure from the EU in January. The change of administration in Washington leaves the prospects for a deal uncertain.

And there may be one more barrier, albeit a small one, to nurturing the “special relationship” – the phrase itself.

Johnson said he did not appreciate the “special relationship” used by the US president because to the prime minister it seemed needy and weak. Johnson’s spokesperson said this week: “The Prime Minister has publicly stated that he prefers not to use the phrase, but that in no way detracts from the importance with which we view our relationship with the United States. , our closest ally. “


Lawless reported from London. Madhani reported from Mildenhall, England. Associated Press writer Josh Boak in Baltimore contributed to this report.

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