Joe Biden’s election is serving up a rude reality check for U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s desire to quickly close a trade deal with the U.S., a project that has until now depended heavily on the whims of President Donald Trump.
After five rounds of formal negotiations, both sides insist they have made good progress on what would be the U.K.’s second-biggest post-Brexit trade deal, eclipsed only by the pact with the European Union that it’s departing. There are even some discussions of having a further formal round of talks before Trump leaves the White House in January, according to people close to the negotiations.
Johnson indicated in a letter to Biden sent this past weekend that he wanted to make pursuing a bilateral trade deal a priority, according to one person familiar with its content. Trade was also among the issues discussed when the two men spoke by phone on Tuesday, according to a readout issued by Downing Street.
But trade negotiations are almost always prolonged affairs that depend more on a slow procedural march through the details than political desires.
People close to the negotiations say finishing them in the first half of 2021 had always looked ambitious, even if Trump had been re-elected. That timetable seems even less likely with Biden headed for the White House, which in turn raises other logistical challenges.
Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress has authority over international trade. For decades that authority has been delegated to American presidents under what is now known as Trade Promotion Authority. Congress lays out priorities and rules for all negotiations in the legislation granting that. In return, presidents are given a guarantee that the legislature will consider trade deals under a simple up-or-down vote and won’t seek to renegotiate them.
The bad news for Johnson is that the current version of the TPA expires July 1. To get in ahead of what is almost always a laborious and politically fraught negotiation to renew the trade negotiating authority, the U.S-U.K. talks would have to be close enough to a conclusion that Biden could notify Congress of his intention to sign a deal before April 1.
Even if Biden wanted to do that, the biggest logistical problem facing the U.K. in meeting that deadline is that a new U.S. Trade Representative may not be in place before that. Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s trade czar, was not confirmed by the Senate until May 11, 2017, almost four months after Trump’s inauguration.
A spokeswoman for the U.K.’s Department for International Trade said Johnson’s government looks forward to engaging with the next administration in coming weeks, adding that talks on technical matters will continue through the leadership transition.
Cutting a deal with the U.K. is not seen as politically controversial in Washington and is likely to retain broad bipartisan support. But analysts say that beyond the challenging timeline, big questions remain over whether Biden will want to proceed quickly, or at all.
Rufus Yerxa, a former senior U.S. trade official who now leads the National Foreign Trade Council, which represents American companies, said Biden had already made clear his most urgent priorities were dealing with the pandemic and an ailing U.S. economy. Biden has also said that he would be watching the U.K.’s negotiations with the EU carefully to make sure nothing undermined the peace in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement that governs it.
But Yerxa said Biden would also be keen to take a more balanced approach than Trump to America’s trans-Atlantic relationships and would want to have good relationships with both the EU and U.K.
“If he jumps headlong into a free-trade agreement with the U.K., that suggests that he is favoring London over Brussels, and I don’t think he’ll do that,” Yerxa said.
The Biden campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.
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A free-trade agreement with the U.K. is attractive for companies based on the volume of commerce between the two countries, said Kelly Ann Shaw, a partner at Hogan Lovells in Washington who served on the trade and economic team in Trump’s White House.
The U.K. and U.S. traded$132 billion worth of goods in 2019. That puts Britain behind only Germany in terms of American trading partners in Europe.
While the pandemic has complicated talks by limiting the ability of negotiators to meet in person, talks are “going well, and they are continuing to work through the issues,” Shaw said.
Then again, “the Biden campaign team has said that they aren’t going to be negotiating any trade deals the first year of the administration,” she said. “That puts a big question mark over what happens with the U.K.”
— With assistance by Zoe Schneeweiss, and Joe Mayes
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