LONDON – He told the world to grow up and accept the challenge of climate change. He mocked France’s backlash after being shut out of a submarine deal with Australia by Britain and the United States. He even dispelled the lingering confusion over how many children he has (six).
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson cut a signature colorful stripe from New York to Washington this week, managing to travel between cities by Amtrak – a nod to his loyal Amtrak host President Biden – before telling the French aggrieved by “take a grip” and “give me a station wagon”.
For Americans, now accustomed to a president who rarely deviates from the script, it was a throwback to a time when their own leader showed up in Britain and began to drop cherry bombs. Except in the case of Donald J. Trump, this involved calling the mayor of London a ‘cold loser’ and telling a British tabloid that Mr Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, was doing a bad job negotiating a deal. on Brexit.
Mr Johnson has always been a more genius and optimistic figure, a journalist turned politician who uses humor, often at his own expense, to make serious points. What is less clear, after a five-day visit that presented both reassuring and problematic signs for the “special relationship”, is how the Prime Minister’s lighthearted style is advancing Britain’s efforts to play a post-Brexit role on the world stage.
“This is both the advantage and the problem for Boris Johnson,” said Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair. âHe’s a lot of fun the first time you meet him. But the problem with being a comedic act is that you aren’t taken seriously then. That is why we were not consulted on Afghanistan.
Britain’s inclusion in a nuclear submarine alliance with Australia and the United States was a notable victory for Mr Johnson – a victory which showed Britain’s relevance and compensated for the contempt of the White House for British views on the tactics or timing of the military withdrawal from Afghanistan. .
Still, that’s a bright spot in a transatlantic relationship that is otherwise a mixed bag. On his way to New York, Mr Johnson told reporters Mr Biden had little immediate interest in negotiating a trade deal between the United States and Britain because he had “a lot of fish to fry “. While hardly surprising, his admission effectively buried one of Brexit’s main selling points: It would allow Britain to strike a lucrative trade deal with the United States.
With Mr Johnson sitting next to him in the Oval Office days later, Mr Biden also made it clear he would oppose any UK action threatening peace in Northern Ireland. Britain has pledged to revise its post-Brexit trade deals with the north, a process that critics say could jeopardize the Good Friday deal, which ended decades of sectarian violence there -low.
British officials said Northern Ireland had not intervened in their private talks, which one official described as “very warm”. But Mr Biden’s public reference to it was a reminder that the issue has political resonance in Washington and, therefore, continues to disrupt London-Washington relations.
The prospect of a bilateral trade deal has now been replaced by the hope of something arguably even more bizarre.
British newspapers have reported that the Johnson administration is now considering joining the revised North American Free Trade Agreement negotiated by Mr. Trump with Canada and Mexico. Since Britain already has deals with the two countries, this would amount to a backdoor deal with the United States.
Business analysts were puzzled, noting that neither side would spare the political vagaries of a trade negotiation. Moreover, these experts said, the wording of this deal, known as the US-Mexico-Canada deal, would be disadvantageous for UK automakers wishing to export to the US.
âAnything that makes a bilateral deal difficult makes the USMCA difficult,â said Sam Lowe, trade expert at the Center for European Reform, a research institute in London. “We would always talk about chlorinated chicken,” he added, referring to disputes over access to chemically-treated US foods.
For Mr Johnson, the intricacies of a trade pact may be less important in the short term than the victories he has achieved. On the eve of his visit, the White House lifted the ban on travelers from Britain, the European Union and other countries, which had become a nagging source of transatlantic tensions.
Mr Johnson has also had to boast of the undersea alliance, which not only makes Britain a key US ally in the geopolitical struggle with China, but also has the political advantage of upsetting the British neighbor. , France.
Speaking outside the Capitol, Mr Johnson broke into joyful Fr Anglais to mock the French for what he said was their overreaction to Australia’s decision to break a $ 66 billion deal for non-nuclear submarines.
âGive me a breakâ became an instant social media classic, rivaled only by an instant, in an interview with NBC News, in which Mr Johnson admitted to having six children. The precise number has long been shrouded in mystery: he has divorced twice, has a daughter in an extramarital affair, and escaped previous attempts to corner him on the issue of fatherhood.
As seasoned Johnson watchers have noted, he used the French version of ‘give me a break’ at least eight times, dating back to March 1994, when he put it in an article on house prices. . Some critics have argued that this was unnecessarily provocative for France, making laugh a country that has many ways to settle scores with Britain.
“We enjoy the times when the French are hot under the collar,” said Powell. “But there is a long term cost to that.”
At the United Nations, where Mr Johnson is not yet a familiar figure as a world leader, he displayed a mixture of charm and self-mockery. He told reporters that as a journalist he played down the threat of global warming. Addressing the General Assembly as the host of a United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in November, Mr Johnson slipped into the role of a loving but stern parent.
“We still cling with parts of our minds to the infantile belief that the world was made for our satisfaction and our enjoyment,” Mr Johnson said, in terms that could apply to his own picaresque past. “And we combine this narcissism with an assumption of our own immortality.”
âWe think someone else is going to fix the problem, because that’s what someone else has always done,â he added. “My friends, humanity’s adolescence is coming to an end and must come to an end.”