Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said he’s “confident” the U.K. will be able to resolve Brexit issues relating to Northern Ireland and played down fears Britain’s split from the European Union will sour relations with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden.
Raab said Sunday Boris Johnson’s government has reassured Biden’s team the U.K. has “no intention of imperiling” Ireland’s peace process and the Good Friday agreement, and has committed not to put up any infrastructure on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. He said he’s hopeful a trade agreement can be struck with the EU this week — though he reiterated that key differences remain on fisheries and regulations.
“What the Americans will be looking for will be the opportunities of the future,” Raab told the BBC, noting the Brexit transition period will have ended — with or without a trade deal with the EU — by the time Biden takes office in January. “They’re looking at opportunities for multilateral cooperation on Covid, on counter-terrorism, cyber’s a big thing, reinforcing the NATO alliance and of course climate change.”
But Raab’s assertion may eventually be put to the test, as controversial legislation that seeks to rewrite the U.K.’s divorce agreement with the EU continues its rocky path through Parliament this week. In September, Biden said any future U.K.-U.S. trade deal would be contingent on preventing the return of a hard border in Ireland — something Johnson’s move to rewrite sections of the Brexit deal threatens to do.
“We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit,” Biden said at the time on Twitter. “Any trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”
“I’m confident we will navigate all of those issues sensitively, correctly,” Raab said Sunday.
Still, Raab gave no indication the government will shift its stance on the legislation even as it listens “very carefully to our American friends.” He reiterated the government’s view that it’s the EU’s position in trade talks that puts pressure on the peace process.
Raab’s comments come after Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen used a phone call on Saturday to plot the way forward toward a Brexit deal, but warned that large differences still need to be bridged if there is to be an agreement.
Both the EU and U.K. have previously indicated that Nov. 15 is the very last moment a deal can be done if it is to be ratified by their respective parliaments before the post-Brexit transition period ends on Dec. 31 and the U.K. formally leaves the European single market.
A statement from the U.K. echoed both the determination and the difficulties. Talks have been stuck for months on the key issues of the level playing field for business and access to British fishing waters.
“There are some core interests at stake for the U.K., points of democratic principle around control of our laws, control of our fisheries as an independent coastal state,” Raab said. “I don’t think we can toss those aside. But if the EU shows the flexibility, the good will to meet us halfway, I am confident a deal can still be done.”
Johnson has long touted a free-trade accord with the U.S. as one of the key prizes of Brexit, but the Internal Market Bill working its way through Parliament risks undermining that goal.
Though the plan contained within the bill to breach international law over Brexit is set to be overturned in a series of votes in the upper House of Lords on Monday, the government is expected to fight to keep the provisions when the legislation returns to the lower House of Commons.
The votes on Monday, during the so-called committee stage of the bill, come at a politically difficult time for Johnson as trade talks with the EU continue. The bloc is taking legal action against the U.K. over the draft law, and European leaders have demanded that Johnson drop the controversial clauses relating to trade with Northern Ireland as the price of any wider accord.