Senior lawmakers in Washington are calling for a revival of US-UK trade talks after the UK and EU struck a deal on Northern Ireland that removes a huge source of tension between Washington and London.
The push came after members of Congress from both sides applauded the Windsor framework for post-Brexit trade deals in Northern Ireland as a turning point in US-UK bilateral relations and a sign that more pragmatic leadership had returned to the British government under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
“Since the Brexit vote seven years ago, the biggest stumbling block has definitely been the Northern Ireland issue and the fact that the UK and the US disagreed exactly,” said Brendan Boyle, a Democrat. congressman from Pennsylvania, told the FT.
“There is no doubt that a major irritant in US-UK bilateral relations has been taken off the table,” he added.
“I think I’m hoping with that behind me, in a short time it will be [trade] discussion,” added Bill Keating, a Massachusetts Democratic legislator.
Chris Coons, a Democratic Senator from Delaware and a close ally of U.S. President Joe Biden, introduced a bill on Thursday that would give the president the power to negotiate a free trade deal with Britain.
The bill would give Biden two years, or up to several months, of a hypothetical second term to reach a deal and speed up a vote in Congress to approve any deal. The proposal was co-sponsored by John Thune, a Senator from South Dakota who is the second-oldest Republican in the upper house of Congress.
“The resolution on the special status of Northern Ireland after Brexit was an essential precondition for the negotiations. . . now that this is over, we believe the time is right to negotiate a free trade agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom,” said one congressional adviser.
Thune said the proposal – which would need to be approved by both houses of Congress and signed by Biden – represents “an important step towards a strong and hopefully long-lasting trade deal with the world’s fifth-largest economy.”
Biden, a proud Irish-American, welcomed the Windsor framework earlier this week, releasing a lengthy statement saying he was “proud of the role the United States has played for decades in helping to achieve, preserve and strengthen” the peace enshrined in 1998 r. Good Friday Agreement.
The president said he looked forward to “continuing our close cooperation” with Northern Ireland, the UK and Irish governments and the EU “to further peace and prosperity”.
U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai told Bloomberg on Thursday that the Biden administration had “watched” Windsor’s breakthrough “with great interest.” She added that her office “will continue to pursue our ongoing dialogues with the UK while remaining very interested in how the Windsor deal will be finalized and implemented.”
While Biden sought to resolve some of the trade disputes with US allies that raged during the Trump administration, he did not push for big steps to liberalize trade. But Keating said Biden understands the need to strengthen America’s allies economically, especially in light of increasing competition with China.
“Even for President Biden, who is not a free trader, I think he sees the benefits of moving forward, but perhaps it is gradual,” Keating said.
The White House has not yet said whether Biden will travel to Northern Ireland to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement next month.
Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, said preserving the deal was a “clear priority” for the US, and Washington was “pressing for [Northern Ireland] protocol to be developed.
But Murphy warned that any presidential visit could be conditional on restoring the Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont.
“It certainly seems like a pretty big moment for the US high-level delegation if the protocol goes into effect and the Stormont government is reinstated,” Murphy said. “It would be difficult to have a high-level American delegation in Belfast if there was no government in Belfast.”
Keating said knowing Biden’s story, a trip to Northern Ireland next month was “something he’d like to do”, but a lot would depend on the president’s other commitments.
Regardless, in Washington, especially among the Democrats and in the Biden administration, there was a sigh of relief that Sunak had ushered in a less ideological government in Britain compared to his predecessors Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, and he would be easier to work with.
“I think the new prime minister is a person who has dealt with the economy, he knew he had to get this thing behind him to move other things forward,” Keating said. “He was very realistic.”