The Prime Minister and President sat down together today (16 November) on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia, a conference which has gathered leaders from across the world to discuss the challenges faced by the global economy. For Sunak, it marks the first time he has come face-to-face with many of his fellow heads of government, and so has been a key opportunity for establishing relations with some of the UK’s main allies.
One of these important allies is of course the US - and so the Prime Minister’s meeting with Biden was unsurprisingly a highly-anticipated one. They reportedly discussed energy security and how to stabilise prices amidst Russia’s continued invasion of Ukraine, as well as defence plans and the Northern Ireland protocol.
Something that was not explicitly talked about during their one-to-one however was a US-UK free trade deal, despite the fact that the government previously promised that there would be an agreement with Washington by 2022. The lack of discussion on this topic comes in stark contrast to Sunak’s recent predecessors, Boris Johnson and Theresa May.
Here’s what Rishi Sunak and Joe Biden discussed during their meeting - and all the things they didn’t.
What did the two world leaders discuss?
Energy was a main topic of conversation between Sunak and Biden, with the former telling reporters that the two leaders had agreed on wanting to “work together to improve energy security at a time when we’re all wanting to have more of that at home.”
The Northern Ireland protocol was also brought up, with Sunak promising Biden that a deal would be reached with the EU by the time of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement - which takes place in April next year. Biden reportedly “expressed his desire for a negotiated settlement” that protects the agreement.
After the meeting, Downing Street said in a statement that the UK government “looked forward to working [with the US] to take forward cooperation on areas including trade, defence, and upholding the Belfast (Good Friday) agreement.” It also described the first meeting between Sunak and Biden as “very friendly and warm”, which many will be pleased to hear given the strain on the two countries’ relationship in recent years over post-Brexit agreements in Northern Ireland.
What did they not discuss?
The two leaders did not discuss a trade deal between their countries, which prompted Sunak to be asked whether this omission - or failure - was indicative of him giving up hope of agreeing one before the next election.
The Prime Minister responded: “We didn’t discuss a trade deal in particular, but we did discuss our economic partnership. Both of us acknowledged the fact that, actually, the United States is our single largest trading partner and there’s a range of economic co-operation that is happening, and can continue to happen in the future.”
He added that he is “filled with optimism” about the UK’s ability to do more trade with the US “to deepen our economic relationship”.
Meanwhile, the Richmond MP’s press secretary revealed there was no “specific talk about a trade deal”, insisting that “our relationship is not just about trade and they are our closest trading partner even without a trade deal.” She declined to comment on the timing of a potential agreement.
What’s the background?
The UK has been looking to secure a comprehensive free trade agreement with the US for a while, but the prospects of doing so seem to have faded under the Biden administration as other issues have taken priority - such as the war in Ukraine, the UK’s relations with the EU, and a tense sequence of events between the US and China.
Many members of the public and businesses alike are still hoping for a trade deal, which would help boost business between the two countries, but government officials seem to be putting it off. During a recent visit to Washington, Sunak’s Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch said the UK “shouldn’t get too hung up” on the idea of negotiating free-trade agreements, since there are “other ways” of expanding trade. This came nearly seven months after she and US Trade Representative Katherine Tai pledged to develop an “ambitious roadmap” for future trade talks between the United States and the UK.
In the absence of talks for a larger deal, the UK has pursued a strategy of striking small-scale services agreements with individual states such as Indiana, North Carolina and Oklahoma to reduce trade barriers. South Carolina is reportedly the next state the Department for International Trade is hoping to strike a deal with.