Any future trade agreement between the US and the UK would almost certainly be blocked by the US Congress if Brexit attacks the Irish border and endangers peace in Northern Ireland, congress leaders and diplomats have warned.
Boris Johnson has presented a trade agreement with the US as a way to offset the economic costs of leaving the EU, and Donald Trump promised that the two countries could conclude “a very substantial trade agreement” that would trade four or five times would increase “.
However, Trump would not be able to push an agreement through a hostile congress, where strong two-party opposition would be to a trade agreement in the UK in the event of a threat to the 1998 Good Friday agreement and to the open border between North -Ireland and the republic.
Johnson’s rise and his demand for the EU to drop the backstop, designed to protect the open border after Brexit, has galvanized Congress’s determination to defend itself against the milestone agreement guaranteed by the US.
“The American dimension of the Good Friday agreement is indispensable,” said Richard Neal, co-chair of the 54-member caucus Friends of Ireland in Congress, and also chair of the powerful House manners and resources committee, with the power to to close a trade deal indefinitely.
“We oversee all trade agreements as part of our tax jurisdiction,” said Neal, a Democratic Congressman from Massachusetts, in a telephone interview. He pointed out that such a complex trade agreement could take four or five years, even without the Northern Ireland issue.
“I would have little enthusiasm for entering into a bilateral trade agreement with the UK if they were to jeopardize the agreement.”
Pete King, the Republican co-president of the Friends of Ireland group, said the threat to leave the backstop and endanger the open border was an “unnecessary provocation,” and added that his party would have no compromise to Trump on the issue.
“I would think that anyone with a strong belief in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement would certainly be willing to go against the open border,” said King.
In the case of a hard Brexit, in the absence of guarantees for the Northern Ireland agreement, the strength of sentiment among Irish Americans – one tenth of the population, many of them in swing states – could become a problem in the presidential and congress elections.
Johnson refused to meet with EU leaders until the backstop was demolished. On Tuesday, the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, told Johnson that the backstop could not be removed from the UK withdrawal agreement.
After a controversial telephone conversation between the two leaders, a Varadkar spokesperson said that alternatives to the backstop, as a means to guarantee the Northern Ireland peace agreement, “have yet to be identified and demonstrated”.
For the past eight months, Congress has delayed the ratification of a new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, the USMCA, which Trump has presented as an extraordinary achievement (although it differs little from its predecessor, Nafta). Representative King said that a British trade agreement would encounter even greater obstacles.
“First of all, trade agreements are always difficult,” said the New York Republican in a telephone interview. “There are a number of other labor and environmental issues that are being discussed. But having a solid blockade on one particular subject would make it very, very difficult to get through Congress unless the border issue is resolved.”
The Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said that a trade agreement between the US and the UK “has no chance” of succeeding in Congress. During the weekend, a committee of former members of Congress and foreign policy officials said that “the whole of Irish America will support the speaker immediately.”
The ad hoc commission to protect the Good Friday agreement, established earlier this year, wrote to the new UK secretary for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, on Sunday to express his concern about Johnson’s statements about leaving the backstop.
A European diplomat in Washington predicted that the Irish American caucus would be decisive for concluding an agreement. “I think there is enough meat in the Irish-American lobby to stop a trade agreement in the UK if the Good Friday agreement is affected,” the diplomat said.
The Irish embassy is lobbying energetically for the defense of the 1998 peace agreement. The ambassador, Daniel Mulhall, said he pressed an open door.
“There is a real wave of opinion in Irish America in favor of the Good Friday agreement and against everything that is believed to undermine that agreement,” Mulhall said.
“Wherever I go, wherever I speak with Irish-American audiences, the first question always has to do with Brexit,” the ambassador added. “And they always reflect a deep concern about the Brexit.”
“Politically we have a good caucus here. It is active … They see the Good Friday agreement and everything that came out of it as an achievement for Irish America … and they loathe seeing it in danger in the Brexit context. “
Amanda Sloat, a former Foreign Ministry official and now a Brexit expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said: “Trade agreements are always a challenge to ratify in Congress … As speaker Pelosi said, there be a significant resistance to the ratification of a trade agreement that is perceived as damaging to the Good Friday agreement or the interests of people in Northern Ireland. “