Why the Biden Administration Should Pursue a Trade Deal with the U.K.

The president-elect has signaled that any trade deal must not threaten the peace deal in Northern Ireland.

The U.K.’s drawn-out departure from the European Union will be official on December 31, and the British government is scrambling to finalize trade deals with the EU and other trading partners. It has a deal in place with Japan and has negotiated to “roll over” several other agreements. 

One of the top priorities, naturally, has been to secure a trade deal with the United States. But one sticking point in its talks with the EU also presents an issue for any potential deal with the United States under a Biden administration: what to do about Ireland and Northern Ireland.

With the U.K. out of the EU, British citizens will once again require visas to live and work in the EU, and vice versa. Hence, introducing border controls between the Republic of Ireland—which is in the EU—and Northern Ireland, which, being part of the U.K., is not, seems like an obvious move.

However, the U.K. is also bound by the Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998 to end the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In exchange for the Provisional IRA agreeing to disarm, the U.K. agreed to a number of concessions. One of these was free movement with no border checkpoints between Ireland and Northern Ireland. That was not a major concession at the time, since both countries were already in the EU and free movement already existed between them. But Brexit created a dilemma: how to keep free movement between Ireland and Northern Ireland to honor the Good Friday Agreement while ending it with the rest of the EU.

Last year the U.K. agreed to a withdrawal agreement with the EU that aimed to resolve this problem: Instead of border controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland, there would be border checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K., while Northern Ireland would continue to enforce EU rules and standards even after Brexit. Critics of the agreement argued this would turn NI into an EU colony and mean a de facto, if not de jure, separation from the U.K.

The government has introduced legislation, called the Internal Markets Bill, which would formalize trading arrangements between England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But the bill violates the Withdrawal Agreement and claws back some of the concessions made on Northern Ireland. While it does not introduce a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, it gives the U.K. the power to subsidize Northern Irish businesses without first requiring permission from the EU, and ensures that all goods that can be sold in the U.K. can also be sold in Northern Ireland, even if those goods do not live up to EU regulations. This is particularly relevant when it comes to agriculture: U.K. food standards post-Brexit may be lowered below EU standards, and this bill would ensure that food produced in England could still be sold in Northern Ireland even if this should happen. 

The U.K. argues that the Withdrawal Agreement was meant to be temporary and to be replaced by a permanent trade agreement, and that the Internal Markets Bill is merely meant to safeguard the integrity of the U.K. in case negotiations fail. Both parties have accused the other of negotiating in bad faith.

What does all of that mean for a deal between the U.S. and the U.K.? President-elect Joe Biden has stated that any deal between the two countries will be conditional on not endangering the peace deal in Northern Ireland. 

What this ignores is that peace in Northern Ireland is not in danger. Northern Ireland is a very different place than it was during the Troubles, and the parties involved should take that into consideration.

The vast majority of violence on both sides was committed by relatively young people, those in their 20s and 30s. The conflict ended in 1998, meaning the youngest people who took part are now about 40. Most of the worst fighting happened in the 1970s and early 80s—those combatants are now old enough to be retired.

Today, young people in Northern Ireland are less religious and less tribal than their parents and grandparents were. Like most young people in every other western country,  their “activism” takes the form of retweets and shares, not Molotov cocktails. The Troubles were not caused by border checkpoints, but by the widespread discrimination against and disenfranchisement of Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority. The checkpoints were convenient targets for terrorists, yes, but the circumstances that created such fertile ground for terrorism simply do not exist today.

But the absence of a trade deal, and the perception that the U.S. has its thumb on the scale by insisting the U.K. yield to the demands of the EU, could cause real problems.

Republicans—a term for those in Northern Ireland who support a united Ireland—are currently winning, and they know it. Support for reunification has increased dramatically over the past few years, with young people significantly more open to joining the Republic than their parents and grandparents are. The desire to remain part of Britain among the Northern Irish, meanwhile, is dying a slow death. The last thing Republicans would want right now is to rock the boat. If they were to resort to violence again, they would only end up scaring off moderate supporters and undecided voters who might otherwise support a united Ireland in a future referendum. 

Meanwhile, if the unionists (those who want Northern Ireland to stay part of the U.K.) perceive that the United States were trying to subjugate Northern Ireland, force London to abandon them and bend the knee to the government in Dublin, that would cause unprecedented anger and resentment in the unionist community. It might actually lead to violence.

Further, holding up a trade deal and trying to pressure the U.K. to yield to the EU would jeopardize the longstanding “special relationship” between the two countries. The British left already disdains the United States, thanks in part to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that cost the lives of hundreds of British soldiers. But conservatives have stood by the U.S. and the special relationship despite staunch opposition and public mistrust, especially during the Trump era. Withholding a trade deal would be seen as extortion, and few would be willing to defend the U.S. for such a betrayal.

A US retreat from the special relationship would also give Russia an opening: It is well-established that Russia has attempted to interfere in domestic British politics, just like they have in the US. With the special relationship in ruins, the British economy shattered and the Conservative party in disarray, this would create the perfect conditions for Russia to increase its influence in the U.K.

While Brexit is controversial, a trade deal between the United States and the United Kingdom ought not to be. The United States has every right to safeguard its economic interests when negotiating such a trade deal. But nothing good could come from meddling with the complicated ongoing negotiations between the U.K. and the EU.

Photographs by Getty Images.