Why Johnson’s hopes for a speedy US trade deal are in tatters

Biden is in no hurry to do a deal with the UK, whatever the PM might believe.

As predicted, US trade officials have indicated that a quick trade deal with the UK is not a top priority for Joe Biden.

This is despite reports in the Express saying Johnson and Biden discussed a “turbo charged” trade deal in their recent telephone call.

Pipe dreams

Liz Truss, UK trade secretary, insisted much of the work needed to secure a trade deal has already been done, but the indications are that the Biden administration has other more pressing issues to sort.

The FT reported that senior UK officials “have admitted that an agreement may not be possible in 2021,” with Janet Yellen, Biden’s nominee for Treasury Secretary, saying the new president had made it clear that the US economy had to be upgraded before more trade barriers were taken down.

Biden has been clear that he will not sign any new free trade agreements “before the US makes major investments in American workers and our infrastructure,” she added. White House press secretary Jen Saki also said there was no set timeline for completing the deal. 

The UKs former ambassador to Washington Kim Darroch told the BBC recently it was ‘a stretch’ to think a UK-US trade deal would happen during Biden’s ‘first term as president’. In other words, Britain would not be a top priority. Darroch also said that when Biden does turn his attention to a trade deal it will probably be with the EU and or a new trans-Pacific deal.

And while Liz Truss’ allies did not discount the possibility of a deal in 2021, two issues remain unresolved: agriculture and pharmaceuticals. There is also a timetable problem. If the US Congress is not notified of the completion of a deal by April, it will lose ’fast track’ approval protections under US trade law that expires later this year.

Those protections prevent substantial changes or amendments to the text of any deal, although they are able to vote for or against it as a whole. If the April deadline is missed, the deal risks being bogged down in disputes when it reaches Congress, according to the FT

Unions united

Meanwhile Biden is keeping his pledges to US unions. In one of his first acts he fired the general counsel to the National Labour Relations Board, which overseas the process for unions to secure ‘recognition’ and collective bargaining rights.

He told the anti-union lawyer Peter Robb to resign by 5pm on inauguration day. Robb failed to quit and at 8:45 pm his position appeared as ‘vacant’ on the NLRB website.  Biden swiftly appointed Lauren McFerran, the lone Democrat on the NLRB as chair. 

He has also appointed the respected former trade union official Marty Walsh – who was the secretary of the Boston construction trade unions – as US Labour Secretary, and appointed Jim Fredrick of the United Steelworkers to work on the important Health and Safety at work brief.

The moves are being matched by action. In a speech on 22nd January, Biden began the process of raising minimum wages in the US by requiring that everyone working for the federal government be paid a minimum of $15 an hour. The minimum wage which has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009.

If Johnson wants a US trade deal, perhaps he could start by adopting Biden’s pro-union agenda…

Tony Burke is Assistant General Secretary at Unite, President of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, and the TUC General Council’s Lead on Employment and Union Rights.

Image credit: Eric Haynes (CC)

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