On the night of November 7th as Biden officially won the United States presidential election, a clip from several years ago resurfaced to make its rounds on Twitter: the President-Elect can be seen passing throngs of press, with one voice overheard: ‘Sir, can you answer a few questions for the BBC?’ to which Biden replies, with his signature grin: ‘The BBC? I’m Irish.’
With a description that has stuck with him throughout the years as ‘just your average Irish guy’, Biden joins a long list of predecessors and Washington higher-ups that strongly identify as Irish diaspora, along with nearly thirty-three million American citizens. From JFK to Obama, many presidential candidates have played-up their Irish heritage to win the so-called ‘green vote’, fostering very warm relations over the decades with the small island state.
While the Trump Administration alienated the Irish – along with much of the rest of the world – Biden appears eager to rejuvenate this relationship, perhaps to levels that have not been seen before. Renewing the marriage vows with the Irish, while a seemingly harmless cultural gesture of friendship, has potentially far-reaching repercussions for the UK and the EU as well as Ireland.
Aspirations for a UK-US trade deal has been a mouth-watering prospect for Brexiteers since the early days of the movement. Consistently absent from public discussion in the run-up to the leave vote in 2016 was the destiny of the 499km land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the outcome of which has serious potential to reignite sectarian animosities. The Withdrawal Agreement of October 2019 appeared to provide ample measures that would avoid any hard border with the Republic.
This was thrown into disarray with the introduction of the UK Internal Market Bill in September, which seriously threatens to undermine the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, regarded as a non-negotiable by the Americans who played a central role in its establishment. Ideologically speaking, Trump was undoubtedly the better match for Johnson’s vision for Brexit and the means by which he hoped to achieve it. Now, Biden, along with figures such as Pelosi and the Friends of Ireland Caucus composed of 54 senators and representatives, has been unambiguous that should the Northern Irish land border become anything other than seamless, there is no chance of a UK-US trade deal coming to fruition. As such, the results of the US election – and more specifically, the heritage of the new President-Elect – may give reason for Johnson to change his tune when it comes to Brexit strategy.
It would appear that in their aspirations to acquire the freedom to establish a ‘special relationship’ with the US, the UK may have naively overlooked a pre-existing relationship the superpower has had with their smaller, seemingly innocuous neighbour. Should it come down to playing favourites, it looks as though the US made its choice long ago.
While Biden will no doubt maintain Trump’s America-first attitude, he is nonetheless a man of the establishment, of multilateralism, and of working within the institutions with which he has been given. The question could even be asked: what incentive is there for Biden to prioritise a UK-US trade deal? Given what we know about his style as a traditionalist and the clear preference he has shown, it could be argued that a likely turn of events would be for this priority to instead be given to fostering even deeper relations with Dublin, where there is already a strong US presence with tech-giants headquarters such as Facebook and Google in Dublin’s Silicon Docks. After all, following Brexit, Ireland is to become the only native English-speaking, common law, liberal market economy of the EU-27, already serving as an American foothold into the colossal Single Market. The Irish have demonstrated time and time again that they are more than willing to prioritise their seductive tax regime in order to attract and retain (almost solely American) FDI, even when doing so has come at the cost of straining their relations with the Europe.
As one of the smallest members of the EU, with a population of just under five million, Ireland wields an unlikely amount of soft power. With Philip Lane behind the European Central Bank, finance minister Paschal Donohue as president of the Eurogroup, and up until recently, ‘le grand Phil’ Hogan as EU Trade Commissioner, not to mention its new seat on the UN Security Council, Irish diplomacy is nothing if not effective. Despite this, the state very much remains a small island between behemoths – it is likely that Ireland will find itself in an increasingly difficult position in the years to come as it attempts to juggle it’s two greatest priorities: an unwavering dedication to EU membership, and the tax regime it needs in order to attract precious inward FDI. Under the German presidency of the EU Council, which has explicitly stated the goal of harmonising EU-wide tax policy, these two priorities will no doubt come to be ever-more at odds with one another, potentially to the point of total incompatibility.
If Ireland, like to the US, was to be faced with the task of choosing favourites – take this golden opportunity to re-light the fire with the Americans, upon whose FDI the state’s growth model is so reliant, or reinforce allegiance to its beloved EU off the back of Brexit, it is unclear which decision it would take, or whose good favour it holds more dear. Even now, as the Brexit saga finally enters endgame, we are reminded that the struggle which has always been central to the project of the European Union, that of reconciling the divergent capitalisms of its members, will remain an ongoing one.
We can assume with a good degree of certainty that Biden’s friendliness will not be directed at Ireland in isolation – his assuming office will be met with hopes to begin anew by many in Europe. If they were to finally acknowledge the gravity of Irish-American relations and navigate accordingly, it is likely that this friendliness could also be extended to the UK. However, as the days pass since the near global sigh of relief on November 7th, it becomes more and more clear that a friendlier face on the leader of the US never meant that a return to ‘normalcy’ was on the cards for the international order. Regardless of his own distaste for the politics behind Brexit, it would appear that Biden and his distinct personal brand of ‘Irishness’ will ironically, one way or another, have repercussions that further fragment the EU.