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Biden Meets Johnson, With Brexit Tensions in Foreground

Northern Ireland stands out as a point of difference in an otherwise harmonious relationship.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden arrive in England.
U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden react upon arrival at Cornwall Airport Newquay in Cornwall, England, on June 9. Phil Noble - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. President Joe Biden meets U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Pedro Castillo appears likely winner of Peru’s presidential vote, and El Salvador to accept Bitcoin as legal tender. 


Biden Meets Boris

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the southwest of England today, the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders on Biden’s first overseas trip since taking office in January.

The two are set to meet at St. Michael’s Mount, a 17th-century castle on an island off the coast of Cornwall, which will serve as the venue for the G-7 summit.

The meeting comes as the U.K. position on the post-Brexit order has caused dismay in Washington. At issue is the Northern Ireland protocol, a trade arrangement designed to prevent a physical Irish border that would undercut hard-won peace agreements. Under the arrangement, goods entering Northern Ireland from the British mainland are subject to EU checks. In March the British government decided unilaterally to extend a grace period on implementing those checks, angering EU officials and prolonging a simmering dispute among Northern Ireland’s unionists.

The Times reports that Yael Lempert, Biden’s most senior U.K.-based diplomat, issued a formal demarche, or rebuke, to Johnson’s government for “inflaming” tensions over Northern Ireland and putting the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace deal in jeopardy.

Irish roots. The Times report includes a mention that the Irish government had lobbied Biden to intervene on the issue, adding to British worries about Biden’s impartiality. Biden, who makes no attempt to hide his Irish roots, quoted a famous line from a W.B. Yeats poem about the 1916 Irish rebellion against British rule upon his arrival at a Royal Air Force base on Wednesday.

Not so “special.” Johnson is keen to reset the terms of U.S.-U.K. ties—literally. In a phone call with Biden earlier in his term Johnson told the president he dislikes the term “special relationship” as a way to describe the bond between the two countries as it seemed needy and weak, the Atlantic reported on Monday.

Throwback Thursday. Although Johnson would prefer not to have the United States joining Europe in lecturing him on Northern Ireland, it’s unlikely to derail the relationship. The two are expected to reach into the past and sign a new “Atlantic Charter” with goals for recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic in an echo of the one Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt signed at the end of World War II.

Aside from Northern Ireland, Biden and Johnson will have discussions on issues on which they are largely in agreement: climate change, global security and trade, and upholding democratic values. Reestablishing physical ties will also be on the agenda, with the two set to announce a task force to work on resuming travel links between the two countries following pandemic-related travel bans.


What We’re Following Today

Peru’s election. Socialist schoolteacher Pedro Castillo appears to have won Peru’s hotly contested presidential election, maintaining a 0.4 percent lead over Keiko Fujimori with 99.8 percent of votes counted. Speaking late on Tuesday night, Castillo implored his supporters to “not react to provocation” after Fujimori baselessly made claims of election fraud. Castillo said he had spoken with business leaders following his apparent victory, a group who had roundly backed Fujimori in the election. “We will form a government that is respectful of democracy, and of the current constitution. We will build a government of financial and economic stability,” Castillo said.

Famine in Tigray. Three hundred and fifty thousand people in Ethiopia’s Tigray region are living in famine conditions, according to a yet to be yet to be published analysis by the United Nations and other aid groups. The analysis, which could be published as soon as today, found that millions more in Tigray were in need of urgent support to arrest a slide toward famine. The Ethiopian government has already disputed the findings before they have become public and have questioned the methods used to collect the data.

Navalny crackdown. The political movement of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny was designated an extremist network by a Russian court on Wednesday. Under Russia’s anti-extremism laws, group members face up to 10 years in prison if they continue activities, while donating to the organization could lead to an eight-year sentence.


Keep an Eye On

Vaccine plans. The United States plans to donate 500 million doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to the COVAX initiative over the next two years, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday. Biden is expected to make the announcement official at the G-7 summit, where he will speak alongside Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla. The commitment means the United States is on track to purchase 800 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which usually requires at least two doses to become effective.

A Bitcoin first. El Salvador will become the first nation to accept the cryptocurrency Bitcoin as legal tender after lawmakers passed a bill authorizing the move on Wednesday. The volatile cryptocurrency can now be used for regular purchases and paying taxes, while cryptocurrency exhanges will not have to pay a capital gains tax. The move means El Salvador now accepts two currencies outside its sovereign control after the country adopted the U.S. dollar as its official currency in 2001.


Odds and Ends

The travel plans of the White House press corps fell victim to cicadas—the flying insects that emerge 17 years of hibernation—as the journalists attempted to leave Washington on a chartered plane on Tuesday to follow Joe Biden on his European tour. According to a statement from Delta airlines, a group of cicadas rendered an auxiliary power unit on the chartered Airbus A330 “unworkable,” leading to a replacement plane being dispatched.

The flight eventually took off on Wednesday morning, six and a half hours behind schedule. Delta blamed the incident on the “rarest of entomological delays.”

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn