What Happens to Brexit Now Joe Biden Is President-Elect?

Britain's negotiations with the European Union (EU) over the Brexit deal and future relationships were said to be delayed over fishing quotas but the real reason, a number of sources have told Newsweek, was waiting for the U.S. election to conclude.

With Brexit negotiations set to conclude before the end of 2020 and before Joe Biden takes office, what happens now Britain's "special relationship" with the U.S. might not be as special to Biden as rebuilding global ties?

Trump, a man who called Brexit "a good thing" and who saw the role of U.S. ambassador to the EU as a part-time one, is on his way out and Biden, a committed europhile and ally of both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel from his time as vice-president, is on his way in. For Britain, this moves the country from a strong negotiating position with promises of U.S. free trade deals ahead of the EU, to a position of relative weakness.

The deadline for an agreement was set at October 15 by the U.K. and the end of October by the EU. Both of those deadlines have now passed. The unmissable deadline—at least for now—is December 31, when the U.K. will leave the transition agreement—with or without a deal.

There are a number of issues remaining in negotiations, primarily around making sure the U.K. and the EU operate on a level playing field and existing commitments are maintained. However, two issues have remained the biggest sticking points—the border on the island of Ireland and the fishing industry.

The Internal Markets Bill, a proposal by the U.K. government to change the law and allow goods to move easily between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. after Brexit, would break international law. It has been roundly criticized by European leaders.

The border on the island of Ireland, protected by the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the countries, is potentially under threat with these amendments. Biden, Nancy Pelosi and other senators have made it clear that the U.S. will not stand by if peace in Ireland is under threat. It makes things even more difficult for the U.K. that Biden has Irish heritage. Biden even tweeted: "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."

Peers in the U.K.'s House of Lords voted to remove these clauses and it is unclear what Prime Minister Boris Johnson does next—continue with the legislation and risk bad relationships with President-Elect Biden right from the start or conduct another U-turn and risk a weaker deal with the EU.

Joe Biden supporters in Ireland
Joe Biden's distant relatives hail from the County Mayo town of Ballina and has visited the town twice before as the former vice president Charles McQuillan/Getty

With the arguments about fishing, access to British waters is said to be the strongest asset the U.K. has in negotiations. Despite accounting for 0.12 percent of British GDP, ending European access to the "exclusive economic zone" around Britain could significantly hamper European fishing markets.

While seen as a diversion tactic as Europe waited for the U.S. election to conclude this still has not been resolved. But the result of the election really has changed everything:

"I question whether a U.K./U.S. trade deal would be any sort of priority for a Biden-led presidency," a senior U.K. official told Newsweek. "There are rumors around that the key relationships [for Biden] will be with Merkel and Macron. There's a risk that, while he'll be perfectly friendly, he's not a fan of Brexit and we'll be put at the back of the queue.

"In reality, it doesn't benefit the U.K. economy massively to get a trade deal with the U.S. But psychologically, as it's been dangled in front of the British people throughout the Brexit debate, pre and post-referendum as the shining star on the horizon, it would be a big psychological blow if that wasn't on the table."

Johnson is all too aware that the "special relationship" with the U.S. will come under increased strain, with him being referred to by the current president as "Britain's Trump" and being regularly closely aligned with the outgoing president.

"Yes this country's had a good relationship with the White House over the last few years but it has had a good relationship with the White House for many, many years," Johnson said in a press conference. "I have no doubt that we will continue to have a very strong, very close relationship with our American friends."

The British government was so eager to consider Trump as a two-term president that they only started building bridges with the Biden campaign very late. It's a choice that speaks to Prime Minister Boris Johnson's admiration of Trump but could cost the U.K. dearly in the short-term, as Biden focuses on the multi-national relationships before the "special" one.

The U.S. was negotiating an EU free-trade deal until Trump rendered it "obsolete and no longer relevant" and now that will be back on the table. Without Brexit, the U.K. would not need a separate trade deal with the U.S. and could use the sway of the EU. And other international agreements will be looked at by the new administration.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership contains 11 countries, the European Union has 27 countries and a trade deal with Britain would only open the U.S. up to one country. It is likely that Biden will look to restart free0trade negotiations with the EU and rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership before anything else.

Britain is already preparing itself for a great deal of change as it looks forward to a future entirely outside the EU. With talk already that Biden might talk to the Taoiseach Michael Martin before Johnson, and Biden might make his first state visit to mainland Europe rather than the U.K., the new presidency might leave Britain feeling even more isolated.