In June 2017, then UK Prime Minister Theresa May called an election that lost the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority and made her party dependent on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to form a government. The DUP, a fiercely pro-union party that had opposed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the island of Ireland, used its new leverage in Parliament to block any differentiated status for Northern Ireland after Brexit lest it weaken the union. Bowing to the DUP’s demands, the Prime Minister tried to appease her coalition partners by widening the alignment to encompass the UK as a whole, not just Northern Ireland. This in turn infuriated the other Brexiteers.
After first suggesting the UK would agree to some alignment between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and subsequently suggesting regulatory alignment more broadly between the UK and the EU, it was clear that May would fail to provide a solution to the Irish border issue. For this reason, the European Commission unveiled its own, “the backstop,” which would guarantee that the border remains open no matter what happened in the future. The backstop would ensure that Northern Ireland would remain integrated within the EU’s customs union and single market for goods, supplemented by an EU-UK customs union, until it was rendered unnecessary either by the future relationship itself or other means. In layman’s terms, it is an insurance policy enabling the UK and EU to fulfil their shared commitment to respect the Northern Ireland peace agreement by keeping the border as open after Brexit as it is now.
Throughout this protracted Brexit saga, the central problem has been the Irish border issue, which Brexiteers have long avoided. Indeed, at every step they have shown a simple lack of concern about the communities who rely on the border’s openness for their peace and prosperity. Even worse, Michael Gove, a Conservative cabinet minister now tasked with no-deal planning, previously authored a pamphlet attacking the Good Friday Agreement, even comparing it to Munich appeasement of Adolf Hitler.
The talks about the future UK-EU relationship will take place to the beat of a ticking clock starting early February 2020. The European Commission is expected in early February to present a draft negotiating mandate for the free trade agreement. The EU 27 will then have to approve its negotiating mandate. July 1, 2020 is the deadline for Britain to request an extension to its post-Brexit transition period beyond the end of 2020 (to as late as the end of 2022). Prime Minister Boris Johnson has indicated on various occasions that he will not extend the transition period. As it stands, this means that when the UK’s post-Brexit transition period expires at the end of 2020, it will either have a future relationship deal in place or will crash out with No Deal and trade with the EU on basic World Trade Organization terms.
Boris Johnson has made a US-UK free trade agreement a guiding ambition of his government, and he has claimed that the UK would be “first in line to do a great free trade deal” with the Trump administration. Across the pond, this fantasy has been inflated by President Donald Trump, too, who said in late July that he had spoken to Johnson by phone and supported an “ambitious trade agreement” with Britain after Brexit. Trump’s message has also been echoed by Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, and 44 of his Senate colleagues who sent a letter to Johnson pledging unwavering support for the United Kingdom as it exits the European Union.
However, as Johnson and Trump have been making their triumphant claims, the Irish government has been building support among its own allies in the US Congress. So far, it is clear that the Irish are in the stronger position in Washington. This has primarily been achieved with the help of the Friends of Ireland Caucus in the US Congress, which has been an effective advocate for Irish interests in the United States and which claims to represent the interests of America’s large and politically diverse Irish-American constituency. Today, many of Congress’ most important officials have sided with the Irish on backstop concerns and against the British government on a potential trade deal.
Richard Neal, for example, the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, which has authority over trade deals, has said, “Any negotiation of a bilateral trade agreement with the UK […] needs a firm commitment on no hard border.” This has been reiterated by Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, who declared in a recent speech at the London School of Economics, “If there’s any harm to the Good Friday accords – no trade treaty.” There is also Chuck Schumer, the Democrats’ leader in the Senate, who has declared his “inveterate opposition to any prospective trade deal with the UK that either undermines the landmark Good Friday Agreement or facilitates a return to a hard border.” On December 3, 2019 the US House of Representatives voted in favor of a resolution which calls for strict adherence to the Good Friday Agreement during the Brexit negotiations. The resolution was passed by unanimous voice vote following a debate. The legislation urges the UK and the EU to ensure that Brexit does not threaten peace on the island of Ireland and strongly opposes the reintroduction of a hard border. The bill emphasizes that any trade agreements between the US and the UK are contingent on meeting the Good Friday Agreement’s obligations.
Even if Johnson and Trump were to have their way, the road to a UK-US Free Trade Agreement is a long one. Today, over a year after the US, Mexico and Canada began renegotiating the NAFTA agreement, congressional approval is still pending and there is no discernible end in sight. A UK-US Free Trade Agreement, without a pre-existing framework from which to build as in NAFTA’s case, will be even tougher to negotiate and ratify. What’s more, it will now take longer to put on the congressional schedule. Given that we are in the early stages of both impeachment proceedings and the 2020 presidential election campaign, Washington is as distracted as ever.
In a hard Brexit or no-deal scenario, Brexiteers, who claim that a US-UK trade deal will be the solution for or compensation to strained economic relations with the EU, would have to wait a considerable length of time for a US trade-deal bail-out—if, indeed, one ever comes.