US president Joe Biden downplayed prospects of brokering a post-Brexit trade deal with British prime minister Boris Johnson as the two met in the White House yesterday.
Mr Biden also issued a fresh warning for the UK not to damage the peace process in Northern Ireland over its departure from the EU.
Mr Biden did not counter the assertion from his predecessor Barack Obama that Britain would be at the “back of the queue” for a post-Brexit free trade agreement.
Sitting next to Mr Johnson in the Oval Office, the US president told reporters: “We’re going to talk a little bit about trade today and we’re going to have to work that through.”
The British prime minister’s first White House meeting with Mr Biden since he succeeded Donald Trump came as the British government’s hopes for securing a comprehensive free trade deal with the US faded.
British ministers were understood to be instead considering whether to join an existing pact with the US, Mexico and Canada to boost transatlantic trade in a major departure from their prior ambitions.
Earlier in the day, Mr Johnson was unable to commit to securing the deal – touted as a prize of Brexit by Leave supporters during the EU referendum – before the next election.
Vocally proud of his Irish heritage, Mr Biden said he feels “very strongly” about the issues surrounding the peace process, as problems with the Northern Ireland protocol persisted.
“And I would not at all like to see, nor I might add would many of my Republican colleagues like to see, a change in the Irish accords, the end result having a closed border in Ireland,” he said.
Mr Johnson said “that’s absolutely right”, adding: “On that point, Joe, we’re completely at one, nobody wants to see anything that interrupts or unbalances the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.”
But in one possible boost to transatlantic trade, Mr Biden said they are “going to be working on lamb” – with imports currently banned from Britain.
Co-operation on Afghanistan
The US president said he was “anxious” to attend the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow “with bells on”, and said they would continue talks on how to co-operate on Afghanistan.
The two leaders also discussed the prospect of recognising the Taliban during their meeting. A Downing Street spokesman said: “They agreed that any international recognition of the Taliban must be co-ordinated and contingent on the group respecting human rights.”
Mr Johnson first held talks with vice president Kamala Harris after arriving in Washington DC by train from New York, where he has been attending a UN summit.
Mr Johnson told reporters in Manhattan there were “plenty of reason to be optimistic” about getting the free trade agreement (FTA) with the US.
But he downplayed the prospects of brokering a trade deal by the next election, raising the possibility that he could leave Downing Street without achieving a key ambition for the post-Brexit era.
His concession came after suggesting trade negotiations are not a priority for the US president, who he accepted has “a lot of fish to fry”.
Asked if he would get the deal by 2024, Mr Johnson told Sky News: “We will keep going with free trade deals around the world including in the United States. I have plenty of reason to be optimistic about that. But the Americans do negotiate very hard.”
In the run-up to the British EU referendum in 2016, then-president Barack Obama warned Britons they would be at the “back of the queue” for any trade deal if they voted for Brexit. – PA