Days after the U.S. election, an old clip of Joe Biden went viral in the United Kingdom as people pondered what the end of the Trump era would mean for relations between Britain and America. “Mr. Biden, a quick word for the BBC,” a plummy-voiced reporter could be heard saying. “The BBC?” Biden asked, before responding with a cheeky smile: “I’m Irish.”
To most viewers in Britain, it was seen as what it was—Biden’s jokey way of brushing off a reporter that he couldn’t be bothered talking to. But to the pro-Brexit crowd, many of whom had sworn allegiance to Donald Trump, it was seen as a grave national insult and the words of an incoming president who had little intention of putting Britain above other allies.
On Thursday, the first day of the G7 summit in England where Biden is making his first foreign trip as president, their worst fears were realized. The Times of London reported that Biden ordered his top diplomats to dress down British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for “inflaming” tensions in Northern Ireland over his post-Brexit trading demands.
According to the report, Yael Lempert, America’s most important diplomat in Britain, issued a formal diplomatic reprimand to one of Johnson’s ministers, in which she expressed Biden’s personal “great concern” over the prime minister’s trade threats. Notes from the meeting said Lempert “slowly and gravely read her instructions [from Biden] aloud.”
The disagreement is a technical one, but one that has dominated press coverage in the run-up to the G7 summit because of its effect on a key component of the artery-pummeling British breakfast: sausages.
Britain and the EU are finding it impossible to agree on how to implement trade rules for goods crossing from the British mainland to Northern Ireland. If the stalemate continues into next month, it could become illegal for English sausages to enter Northern Ireland, where EU trading rules remain in force to prevent the creation of a hard Irish border.
EU food safety rules don’t allow chilled meat products to come into its market from non-members, like the U.K., but Johnson has threatened to ignore those rules and continue importing English meat tubes. That, the EU argues, could undermine the carefully balanced Brexit agreements designed to protect peace in Northern Ireland—and it appears that Biden has sided with Ireland and the EU against Johnson and Britain.
Biden’s apparent decision to wade into what has become known as The Sausage War has infuriated some Brexit-loving Brits.
An unnamed lawmaker from Johnson’s Conservative party regurgitated Trumpist attacks on Biden on Thursday, telling Politico, “America should remember who their allies are... Unfortunately [Biden is] so senile that he probably won’t remember what we tell him anyway. Unless an aide is listening I'm not sure he’s going to remember for very long.”
Nigel Farage, the man who previously spearheaded the Brexit movement but is now largely reduced to hawking competitively priced Cameo videos to celebrate the birthdays of middle-aged white British men, wrote on Twitter, “We now have an anti-British U.S. President in the White House. I hope all those who condemned Trump see their stupidity.”
Johnson was one of the few world leaders who boasted a good relationship with Trump, who admired the PM’s success in leading the Brexit campaign in 2016.
The White House tried to calm the row on Thursday hours ahead of an expected bilateral meeting between Johnson and Biden.
An unnamed senior Biden administration official reportedly said the private discussion about Northern Ireland reported by the Times “wasn’t directed by the President,” and denied that it was a “heightened” talk. “As with any ally we have diplomatic conversations about areas where we have concern at many levels,” the anonymous official told Politico.
There was also a less significant blip to the Johnson/Biden meeting on Thursday, when plans to host the talks on the iconic St Michael’s Mount island were, predictably, abandoned due to rubbish weather.
The leaders have made alternative arrangements indoors.