Brexit stands as a symptom and symbol of the wave of nationalist populism, and the accompanying polarisation of politics, that has swept through the Western world. With this significance, it’s not surprising that US presidents contemporary to Brexit have not only acknowledged it, but have also chosen to get involved in its politics and pick a side. While Trump was an ideological ally to, and active enabler of Brexit, promising key post-Brexit trade deals to the UK’s government, Biden has taken a different stance.
In comments both during his campaign, and after achieving election victory, Biden made plain his intention to stand with the Irish state and characterise his foreign policy with a more liberal focus on multilateral agreements and international cooperation. In a tweet last September, responding to the UK government’s Internal Market Bill, he stated that “any trade deal between the US and UK,”- a key component of a ‘successful’ Brexit- “must be contingent upon respect for the [Good Friday Agreement] and preventing the return of a hard border [on the island of Ireland]. Period.” In November, now in capacity as President-elect, Biden reiterated these concerns over Brexit’s implications for the Irish border and the Good Friday Agreement, and thus the stability of Northern Ireland. Although with these statements only being made in the less formal settings of twitter and an on-the-street-interview, the intent that they express is far from a solid commitment to foreign policy action.
Furthermore, since taking office, Biden has been fairly quiet on Brexit. In a speech at the State Department on February 4th, in which he outlined his foreign policy ambitions and intentions, Brexit went unmentioned. And while he was quick off the mark, following his inauguration, to pursue foreign policy initiatives such as re-joining the Paris climate agreement, real (public) action on Brexit has been lacking. So far, the only real reference to Brexit from the White House came in a press release in anticipation of this Wednesday’s St Patrick’s day meeting between Biden, as US president, and the Irish Taoiseach, Michaél Martin. The promise made in this statement to “discuss… supporting political and economic stability in Northern Ireland,” is again, far from a public commitment from Biden to support Irish interests when it comes to Brexit. It would therefore be reasonable to question the sincerity of his Brexit stance expressed in these previous comments. But more importantly, even if he was sincere, would pursuing such a foreign policy stance be pragmatic enough to stand up to the reality of international relations and US politics? The answer to this question is yes. Even with a brief look at Biden’s political identity, and the political, geopolitical and economic dynamics affecting his foreign policy stances, it becomes clear that a Biden presidency can and will significantly impact the unfolding of the immediate post-Brexit era.
But before considering these factors, an understanding and appreciation of Brexit’s implications for peace and prosperity on the island of Ireland, the issue central to Biden’s concerns, must be held. For the last millennium Britain has played, in place of a better word, an intimate role in Irish history. To put it briefly, this history has seen invasion, assimilation, colonisation, rebellion, famine, civil war, sectarianism, class struggles, political conflict, ethnic cleansing and religious persecution. In recent decades there has been a largely effective peace process, with political developments such as the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 securing the protection of human rights and a framework for cooperation between Northern Ireland’s conflicting communities in order to build towards a better future. However, a complex array of potentially volatile political and cultural ties and tensions remain, centred around the geopolitical split that is the Irish border.
The Brexit that has been pursued by the UK’s government presents a real threat to the success of this peace process. For a long while this went unappreciated. However, as the Brexit honeymoon period ended, and negotiations between the respective governments properly began, revealing the true technical nightmare of Brexit, the Irish border, and its politics, moved in from the periphery to become a central issue. In the absence of some magical form of technology that could enforce regulations on trade across a border without the need for any actual border infrastructure, there exists two strands of solutions to the problem of the Irish border. The first strand is that of the ‘hard border’ where infrastructure on the border, would restrict movement and enforce whichever rules and tariffs were to govern trade between the UK and the EU. Such a solution would be informed by the UK government’s ambition for a harder Brexit, in which all areas of the UK left the EU customs union and single market equally, thus maintaining unionism, a traditional pillar of UK conservatism.
The second strand is that of Theresa May’s failed Backstop, and Boris Johnson’s Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed upon in his successful Brexit deal. This has avoided the flaws of a hard border as Northern Ireland will follow enough EU rules, for trade between it and the EU not to be checked. A hard border would symbolically deepen the geopolitical divide of the island of Ireland and tighten the ‘Britishness’ of the North, undermining the identity of those who consider themselves to be more ‘Irish’ and alienating them from the British state. For some, this alienation would cause a sort of apathy, for others an active and more republican resentment. Given the legacy of paramilitaries in Ireland, this resentment could well be expressed through violence. George Hamilton, the Chief Constable of the PSNI (the Northern Irish police force), has repeatedly warned that any border infrastructure would be a target of attacks from dissident republicans.
This stand of solutions, however, still has a fundamental flaw. In line with the Government’s desires, Great Britain has completely left the customs union and single market, and so, British goods must be checked before entering the Republic of Ireland and the EU. Without infrastructure on the Irish border, these goods are checked before entering Northern Ireland, creating a kind of customs border in the Irish Sea. This, along with the special measures for Northern Ireland that maintain a closer economic relationship between it and the EU, holds symbolic importance as a separation between NI and Great Britain. Among Northern Ireland’s unionist communities many have perceived this as a threat to their more ‘British’ identities. Arlene Foster’s opposition, first in defeating May’s Withdrawal agreement when the DUP actually held influence in Westminster, and now through legal challenges aimed at having the Northern Ireland Protocol scrapped, is testament to this flaw.
Johnson also seems determined to undermine the Northern Ireland Protocol, firstly with the Internal Market bill, and then by delaying its implementation without EU approval, which
the EU will now be taking legal action over. And so, we find ourselves without a solution to which both sides consent. All the while, the issue of the Irish border, created by Brexit, continues to sharpen the identity concerns of Northern Ireland’s communities. This threatens the cooperation central to the Good Friday Agreement, without which, frameworks to protect human rights and for a shared Northern Irish government to enact change are lost.
But why does the outcome of this mess matter to Biden?
Biden’s psychology seems to be a large factor underlying his Brexit position. Biden can trace his heritage back to two Irish great grandfathers who emigrated to the US around the time of the Great Famine. From his obsessive quoting of Irish poets to his frequent use of the use phrase “we Irish”, Biden shows an appreciation of Irish culture and his embrace of an Irish-American identity.
A more well-known instance of Biden’s incorporation of Irishness into his political identity would his quip of “The BBC? I’m Irish!” in response to a request for comment from Nick Bryant, the BBC’s New York correspondent. While a light-hearted joke, this comment still hints at a deeper and more serious sentiment that would certainly shape his foreign policy when dealing with the UK, Ireland and Brexit. Biden’s joke plays on the divisive history between the British state and the island of Ireland, with the BBC and its government funding being representative of the British state. The division that this joke plays on suggests a view from Biden of the contemporary relationship between the two states, under Brexit, being more competitive than cooperative. The more republican (in the Irish sense of the term) tone of this joke shows Biden siding very much with Ireland. The sentiment behind this comment has certainly been recognised, with former SNP MP Dr Paul Monaghan tweeting in response to the video that “It’s going to be a very different presidency.”
The republican undertone continued at a campaign stop in Nevada in February 2020. When introducing a distant Irish cousin of his to the crowd, he gave a very, very brief account of the Potato Famine as a time “when the British were doing very bad things to the Irish.” Such an eloquent statement would be applicable to much of Irish history, not just the Great Famine that drove his family, like many others, to emigrate from Ireland. Again, the historical narrative presented by Biden’s remark carries more republican undertones and draws on the divisive history of Britain and Ireland.
Not only does Biden’s Irish-American identity clearly encompass pride, cultural appreciation and, solidarity through shared ancestral experiences, but it also seems apparent from his off the cuff comments and quips that he has to an extent internalised the injustice and oppression experienced by Irish people at the hands of the British government through much of the last 900 years. Such internalisation would undoubtedly motivate Biden to defend Irish interests when it comes to Brexit. With this behaviour being apparent long before his self identity became significantly relevant to politics and winning votes, the sincerity of his Irish American identity and thus its potential to impact his foreign policy is clear.
Beyond this more psychological reading, there are also geopolitical factors behind his Brexit stance. In a speech at the State Department on February 4th, Biden heralded a new approach to US foreign policy: “America is back, Diplomacy is back.” Biden’s promise of reinvigorated foreign policy with a multilateral and diplomatic focus will have implications for Brexit. Whether he’s seeking to tackle climate change or counteract Russian and Chinese influence, the EU will be an important partner to the Biden administration. With its cultural links, and its geographical position, Ireland would play an integral part in the workings of such a partnership: a “bridge”, as described by US House Representative, Brendan Boyle. With the UK no longer in the EU, the significance of Ireland as a US-EU bridge increases, and so does its strategic importance to Biden’s foreign policy. Thus, a Brexit outcome that maintains peace and avoids reopening Ireland’s wounds of the past becomes strategically necessary for the Biden administration.
Ideology will be another factor influencing Biden’s Brexit stance. Despite losing last November and then facing an Impeachment trial, Trump remains a considerable force within US politics. A recent post-impeachment-trial poll from Politico strongly suggested that if the republican presidential primary election for 2024 were to be held now, then Trump would win comfortably. To mitigate against a Trump candidacy in the 2024 presidential election, Biden must act pre-emptively to tackle the politics of populist nationalism that have arguably driven Trump’s success. This rise of populist nationalism in America could be portrayed as a purely domestic issue, developing organically from social and economic issues in post-industrial communities. The simultaneous surge of nationalist populism in Europe could be dismissed as completely independent. Such a portrayal would, however, be incorrectly ignoring geopolitical elements. The hyperconnectivity of today’s world allows populist movements, be they left or right, to propagate and consolidate regardless of geographical and political boundary. This is particularly the case between the US and UK, where cultural similarity facilitates populist ideology spreading like wildfire. This can be seen through Trump’s leeching off of Farage’s success by involving him in his campaign and also through the role of the internet’s echo chambers in feeding ideology. While social and economic policies would address the underlying causes of nationalist populism in the US, Biden could still go a long way by constraining Brexit, and thus the spread of populist ideology across the Atlantic.
Not only is Biden’s Brexit stance psychologically motivated and geopolitically and ideologically desirable but it also seems politically viable within the sphere of US politics.
With the Georgia Senate run offs giving the Democrats control of the Senate, Biden will have more power over any post-Brexit Anglo-American trade deal. The ability to hang this over the UK government’s head, will allow Biden to exercise a greater degree of influence when it comes to Brexit. While his control of the senate is as slim and fragile as it could be, support for Ireland is a less partisan issue on which Biden can be more secure. For example, a recent bill underlining the Senate’s support of the Good Friday Agreement was sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans. Biden’s position has also been strengthened by members of both the House and Senate leadership, such as Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer expressing in no uncertain terms that a trade deal would not happen unless the UK government respected the Good Friday Agreement and prevented the return of a hard border.
Such influence, combined with psychological and geopolitical motivations will undoubtedly see Biden check Johnson’s attempts to backtrack and renege on the Northern Ireland protocol, and thus a solution that retains the openness of the Irish border and so upholds the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement will be maintained, until a time comes when a solution that also respects the concerns of Unionists is found. Biden’s lack of public statements on Brexit since taking office will be less about insincerity and more about taking a diplomatic approach to resolving such a contentious issue between two of America’s historic partners.