Biden, Johnson put Brexit tensions on hold in first meeting

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Joe Biden during their bilateral meeting in Carbis Bay, U.K. on June 10.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Joe Biden during their bilateral meeting in Carbis Bay, U.K. on June 10.Bloomberg photo by Hollie Adams.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Joe Biden heaped praise on each other as the two leaders sought to re-launch the U.K.-U.S. relationship at a time of rising tensions over the fallout from Brexit.

"Prime Minister Johnson and I had a very productive meeting," Biden told reporters after the leaders met at a beach resort ahead of the Group of Seven summit in Cornwall, England, on Thursday. "We affirmed the special relationship."

For his part, Johnson hailed Biden and his team as a "breath of fresh air" and described their conversation as "wonderful." In an interview with the BBC, the prime minister acknowledged his distaste for the term "special relationship" as a bit of a cliche. He described it instead as "indestructible."

The body language was warm as they met on an overcast day on the English coast, with Biden first greeting Johnson's new wife, Carrie, before turning to the premier. "We both married way above our station," the president told the prime minister later.

The pair took pains to emphasize their common ground, despite rising tensions behind the scenes over the fallout from the U.K.'s split from the European Union.

In recent days, the Biden administration has been vocal in public and privately with the British government, raising concerns that an escalating trade dispute between the U.K. and the EU could threaten peace in Northern Ireland.

But Biden, who famously describes himself as Irish, did not directly push Johnson to fix the argument with Brussels, when they met face-to-face for the first time on Thursday, according to the U.K. side.

Asked by reporters if the president had told Johnson to "crack on" and reach a solution with the EU, the prime minister replied: "No he didn't."

On Friday, U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab blamed the European Union when he told Sky News that Johnson and Biden didn't "linger" on the Northern Ireland issue during their meeting.

"The prime minister wanted to raise it and be very clear on our position," Raab said. "It is the dogmatic, purist approach that the EU has taken which is the risk to the Good Friday Agreement."

He added that "the ball is very much in the EU's court" as to whether the issues will be resolved before the end of June, when the grace period for goods moving to Northern Ireland expires.

For his part, France's Emmanuel Macron headed to Cornwall striking a defiant tone and saying there was no way that the so-called Northern Ireland Brexit protocol was up for re-negotiation.

The Brexit tensions between Johnson and Biden date back years. Biden opposed the U.K.'s European divorce and reportedly characterized Johnson as a clone of Donald Trump. Johnson, meanwhile, is the man who personally led the U.K. referendum campaign to leave the bloc in 2016 and then completed the split at the end of last year.

Despite the difficulties over Brexit, there is still a lot the two men agree on, and Johnson has benefited from Biden's backing for his G-7 initiatives.

This month, finance ministers agreed to a landmark reform of global business taxes, to make sure tech giants like Amazon.com Inc. pay more in the countries where they operate, and to set a minimum rate for business levies.

The two sides published a new shared vision for their cooperation. The joint statement included renewed commitments to peace in Northern Ireland, alongside promises to work to boost global trade. In a separate statement, the U.K. said the two sides agreed to work toward a free-trade agreement.