Brexit, UK Influence and Scottish Independence after the Biden Victory

Kirsty Hughes | 9 November 2020

© 2019 SCER

After the sighs of relief, the questions and analysis start. What does Joe Biden’s victory means for US-European relations – both with the EU and with the UK? What impact might it have on the endgame of the EU-UK Brexit talks currently running into their final days? And if UK-US relations are less warm, how might that impact, if at all, on Scottish independence debates and a possible second referendum in the next four years?

That there will be an important change of tone in US-European relations is perhaps the most certain outcome of the end of Trump’s presidency. How much change there will be in substance is a more open question. The US is not about to suddenly turn into a soft trade negotiator nor be soft in relations with China.

But under President Biden, the US may be both more pragmatic and more strategic, less unstable, less unpredictable and much less likely to create gratuitous and potentially dangerous offence. And a renewed commitment by the US to multilateralism should not be dismissed as a mere matter of tone; it is potentially much more important than that.

Biden’s intention to sign up again to the crucial Paris Agreement on climate change is central, likewise his planning – starting already – to tackle the US’s part of the Covid crisis and to re-join the World Health Organisation. That the vital upcoming COP26 global climate summit is delayed to November 2021 (to be held in Glasgow) is perhaps one of the few helpful outcomes of the Covid crisis. Delay on tackling climate change is not normally welcome but both the EU and US should have got better and tougher strategies and targets by COP26. And a chance for the US, EU and UK to cooperate ahead of a key global summit should be welcome (even in the face of some recent grandstanding on this by Boris Johnson).

Few expect the welcome arrival of President Biden to turn US-European relations back to the past. The US pivot to Asia is not going to disappear. Nor is the Macron-led debate about greater strategic autonomy for the EU going to end (albeit there will doubtless be significant differences in emphasis here between France and Germany in particular). But NATO will still be there – and despite likely continuing debates over spending, priorities and NATO’s role – it should be a more manageable relationship. NATO too, like climate policy, offers the UK a chance to be (or choose to be) in a more constructive relationship with EU member states and the US.

But overall, the more belligerent, and unstable, ‘great power’ world that has emerged in recent years is not going to simply disappear. China’s rise as an authoritarian power will continue. And the old idea of a US-led ‘West’ has gone too. Nonetheless, there is a chance here for the dial to turn back towards strengthening multilateral institutions, democracy and human rights.

What Now for ‘Global Britain’?

The UK looks a tad isolated as the global chessboard gets shaken up – despite still being in NATO, the G7, G20 and other fora. The Conservatives’ sad ‘global Britain’ rhetoric as they took the UK on a deliberate and highly self-damaging Brexit path for the last four years will look more not less ludicrous as a more serious, sane player enters the White House.

Until now, Boris Johnson could play the lesser foil to Donald Trump’s populism. But that cover has been rudely torn away. The UK is now categorised, alongside Poland and Hungary, as one of Europe’s problematic states – its international law-breaking in the Internal Market bill noted in Washington as much as in Brussels. It’s an isolationist and damaging position.

Biden’s victory will surely add to the pressures that were already building to drive Johnson to agree a basic trade deal with the EU. With a deal, Johnson will have to take the international law-breaking clauses out of the Internal Market bill and respect the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement. There will be a chance to start to build back somewhat better EU-UK relations – albeit it will take a long time and quite probably a new non-Conservative government for trust in the UK to return. The UK could do well to start with opening up a more structured EU-UK foreign and security policy conversation; EU states have been disappointed that Johnson chose not to do this so far. US-UK relations will also be better in this ‘Brexit deal’ scenario – though the UK will no longer be an economic or political bridge into the EU – stable and more positive EU-UK relations will be noted in Washington. Germany and France will, though, be the US’s key interlocutors on EU affairs.

With no deal, the UK government will be choosing to create maximum border chaos and economic damage while the Covid crisis continues. The UK government will also be continuing to break international law and the terms of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement on Northern Ireland. This will create a major chill in EU-UK relations, and will create an intense Irish border problem with knock-on undermining of the Good Friday Agreement. The new US administration will not stand by in the face of this.

Either way, the UK’s Brexit path has ensured that it is a much less influential international player than it was before the 2016 referendum. But the difference between a deal and no deal is stark – not only in economic terms but in political and diplomatic consequences.

Scotland’s Choices

What implications may there be from the Biden victory, combined with the UK’s Brexit path, for the independence debate, and the majority that currently exists in Scotland for independence (soon to be tested in the Holyrood elections next May)? The US, just like most or probably all EU governments, is not going to welcome the UK breaking up. The UK has already proved itself to be an unstable and awkward partner in recent years, more instability is not generally seen as a plus. At the same time, due to Brexit, and Scotland’s pro-European vote in 2016, there is also some sympathy for independence in the EU aspirations.

In any second independence referendum, EU governments would take a neutral stance. But, at the same time, compared to the rather negative mood music that surrounded EU governmental voices in 2014, a new referendum might see more willingness to discuss how a legally and constitutionally independent Scotland could apply to join the EU. And doubtless, individual European politicians might take more pro-independence stances than that.

Nonetheless, several EU member states, not only Spain, have concerns around secessionist movements, and will keep a wary eye out for precedents. And possible Plan B routes will also be scrutinised carefully from EU capitals – if there is to be Scottish independence, EU governments want to see an agreed London-Edinburgh approach.

It’s not obvious that the US government under Biden would be particularly sympathetic to independence aspirations. Scottish ancestry may be sought after by some in the US, but Scotland is not Ireland (given the strength of the US-Ireland relationship). Nonetheless, if an independence referendum were to take place while Johnson was still prime minister, then Scotland’s relatively normal politics and pro-European aspirations may look in many ways more in the contemporary political mainstream than Johnson’s past-its-sell-by-date Trumpism. And a more open attitude from the EU to an independent Scotland may impact to some degree on US views too. But hard realpolitik interests – whether in the US or EU – will always be there.

Changing Global Dynamics

A Biden presidency has been welcomed by most European countries. But many know too that Biden faces challenges a-plenty at home – Europe is not at the top of his priority list. On the international stage, the EU and US will not agree on everything but there may be a much more constructive set of relationships, including on the core issue of climate change, than before. How the UK chooses to align its waning reputation and influence amidst these emerging new global dynamics is an open question.

Johnson may attempt to take a more pragmatic route. But moving back towards a more mainstream UK international and foreign policy, given Brexit and given his Tory backbenchers and number ten advisers, may well be a stretch too far. The UK government can choose to do what it can to retain influence outside the EU or it can move further down its self-chosen isolationist path. The choice cannot be delayed any more.


Kirsty HughesKirsty Hughes | Twitter

Scottish Centre on European Relations

Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations. She is a researcher, writer and commentator on European politics and policy, and she previously worked for a number of leading European think tanks.