Great Britain

Could Joe Biden save a US-UK trade deal?

The British government’s hopes of a US-UK trade deal face two major obstacles: the first is that the specific measures that a meaningful accord with the United States would require are politically  unpalatable, as they would mean big changes to British agri-food, the second is that the incumbent American president Donald Trump is highly unpopular in the United Kingdom.

In a measure of how politically difficult it will be to get public acceptance for the necessary changes on agri-food, all of the United Kingdom’s big supermarkets have already vowed never to sell either chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-injected beef in their stores. While the reality is that there is more than a touch of hypocrisy in the big supermarkets talking about how much they care about sourcing, that they’ve been moved to do this is a pretty good guide to where public opinion is.

Those headwinds are made tougher still because a trade deal with the United States means, at the present time, to do a trade deal with Donald Trump - at least in the imagination of the average person in the United Kingdom. The policy reality is that none of the policies that are causing domestic upset here in the UK would be different should Joe Biden win the election in November, and in any case, it’s more accurate to see the United Kingdom as negotiating not only with the American President but the American Senate, too. Whoever is in the White House after January 2021, the farm belt and American agri-businesses will be in power.

As I’ve written on several previous occasions, Tony Blair, with a much bigger majority had to retreat over genetically modified food in the face of a similar coalition, and I remain sceptical in the extreme that the United Kingdom will ever strike a meaningful US-UK trade deal, at least not with a parliamentary majority of only 86 and a Downing Street that tends to U-Turn and retreat under pressure.

But while the policies that people dislike wouldn’t change under Biden, the president would - and the exit from the scene of a president who the vast majority of British voters dislike and think is untrustworthy would definitely make it easier for the British government to make concessions - not least because Trump is a shinier news story than good agricultural practices or anything to do with Biden.

That said, the National Farmers’ Union and other food campaigners have proven they have a pretty good track record of winning these fights even when there isn’t an unpopular president in the White House. It’s instructive that Blair’s retreat over GMO was already underway at the height of his popularity, when Bill Clinton, then beloved in the United Kingdom, was in the White House.

So Biden wouldn’t fix all of the British government’s trade deal problems, but he would render them less acute. There’s probably a window of opportunity for the United Kingdom to strike a meaningful trade deal - in the immediate months after Biden is inaugurated, when the aftershocks of a no-deal Brexit are distracting the public. If those who want to keep current standards in food and farming have succeeded in pushing ratification of a US-UK trade deal past the summer of 2021, the chances are it will never happen.

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