LONDON – When British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab arrives in Washington for a visit this week, he will carry additional baggage as an envoy: his country is eager to secure a trade deal with the United States, but his government has just introduced a bill that would return to a historic treaty with the European Union.
It might not matter much to the Trump administration. President Trump has given up his share of international agreements and is deeply hostile to the European Union. His staff are likely to warmly welcome Mr. Raab, a committed member of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexiteers group.
But it could hurt Britain if the White House changes hands after the November election.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has opposed Brexit and would make a trade deal with Britain less of a priority than Mr Trump has. He is also a strong supporter of Ireland, which could spark tensions if Mr Johnson insists on the new legislation, which would overhaul the way the Northern Irish border is treated.
“Every administration, regardless of which political party it represents, brings with it different approaches,” Raab said in an interview Monday in his office in Whitehall. “We have the agility and the sensitivity to deal with this.”
Mr Raab has championed legislation – which would give Britain the power to change customs procedures for Northern Ireland if it cannot agree on permanent trade deals with the European Union – as a ” preventive, defensive and proportionate response to what the EU is doing ”.
But it has stirred Democrats in Congress, who fear it will lead to the resurrection of a hard border in Ireland. It would threaten the Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. They warn it would torpedo a transatlantic trade deal in Congress.
“What were they thinking?” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week, referring to Mr Johnson’s decision to revise the Withdrawal Agreement. “Either way, I hope they don’t think about a bilateral trade deal between the US and UK.”
On Wednesday at Capitol Hill, Mr Raab will meet Ms Pelosi, as well as Representative Richard E. Neal, the Democrat of Massachusetts, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and influential advocate for Ireland’s interests. Mr Neal said he met Mr Raab a few months ago and was blinded by the latest changes in government policy towards Northern Ireland.
“They always seem to be saying, ‘No problem, we will never disrupt the Good Friday Agreement,'” Neal said in a telephone interview. “And then they take positions that disrupt the Good Friday Agreement.”
In fact, argued Mr Raab, it is the European Union which is jeopardizing peace in Northern Ireland by insisting on a border between it and the European single market. To avoid a border dividing the island of Ireland in two, London and Brussels have instead agreed on a border that goes up and down the Irish Sea.
Mr Johnson said without a permanent trade deal, however, the European Union could use the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol to unravel the UK. Mr Raab complained that the bloc was trying to impose “different terms” on Britain than it was offering countries like Canada or South Korea.
“Any self-respecting democracy the size of the UK would push back on this,” he said.
But that’s not what many UK leaders see.
The five former prime ministers – including three Tories – have warned that going back on the deal would hurt Britain’s moral position. How, some wonder, can Britain condemn China for violating its agreement with Britain on Hong Kong when it is ready to violate a legal treaty with the European Union?
Mr. Raab rejected the comparison.
“I don’t think there is moral equivalence, or indeed equivalence in international law, between what we see in Hong Kong in relation to the Joint Declaration and what we see in relation, as I said. ‘said, with the precautionary measures that we have, ”said Mr. Raab, who trained as an international lawyer.
The tensions over Northern Ireland come even as Britain has eased its main source of friction with the Trump administration: China. Mr. Johnson acceded to Mr. Trump’s request that Britain has cut Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei’s access to its 5G network. And Britain’s criticism of China’s crackdown on Hong Kong has been welcomed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Mr Raab, however, suggested that Britain would try to draw a common ground between the Trump administration’s hawkish stance on China and the European Union’s more conciliatory approach. Britain, he said, was still seeking a cooperative relationship with Beijing on issues such as climate change.
“We don’t think it’s inevitable, and we don’t want it to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, that we slip into some kind of cold war dead end,” he said.
Mr Raab, who as a young man volunteered at a kibbutz in Israel and later worked in the West Bank, said he was encouraged by the news that Israel would normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain . He said the Palestinians should seize the moment to resume talks with Israel.
“This is a great opportunity for them now, as annexation has been taken off the table for the foreseeable future,” Raab said.
Iran is an issue on which a Biden presidency could make life easier for Britain. He recently refused to support the Trump administration in its solitary attempt to restore United Nations sanctions against the Iranians. “We were looking for a resolution that could be adopted,” said Mr Raab eagerly.
As you might expect, he avoided US politics in the interview.
Britain’s goal, he said, was to “add value” to the United States, highlighting a summit meeting it is hosting at the United Nations General Assembly on vaccines against coronaviruses and a multibillion-dollar aid project to alleviate a potential famine in the war. Yemen.
“We don’t just have water under the bridge with the United States,” Mr. Raab said. “It’s a deep friendship.”