Biden talks up transatlantic ties in first call with Boris Johnson

Joe Biden said he wanted to “strengthen the special relationship” with the UK during his first call as US president with Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, stressing co-operation on climate change and health but with no mention of trade.

The conversation with Mr Johnson on Saturday was his third involving a foreign leader since his inauguration on Wednesday, after he spoke with Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s president, on Friday.

According to an account released by the White House of the call with Mr Johnson, Mr Biden “conveyed his intention to strengthen the special relationship between our countries and revitalise transatlantic ties” citing the “critical role of Nato”.

Mr Biden also “noted the importance of co-operation, including through multilateral organisations, on shared challenges such as combating climate change, containing Covid-19, and ensuring global health security” — a turn away from Washington’s unilateral approach to the biggest global problems under Mr Trump.

However, the White House account of the call does not mention any effort by Mr Biden to press ahead with negotiations on a trade deal with the UK, which began under Mr Trump but were not finalised before the change in administration in the US and are a top goal for the UK. Throughout his presidential campaign and during the transition, Mr Biden and his aides have said that any further trade liberalisation would take a back seat compared to their plans to pump trillions of dollars of stimulus and investment into the US economy.

On Friday, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said she could not offer “any timeline” for the trade talks with Britain.

“What is important to the president and also our national security adviser Jake Sullivan is that everything we do must help advance working families and the American middle class,” she said.

“That certainly includes any trade agreements, and that is part of their objective and how they would approach it. But . . . at this point in time we’re working to get the pandemic under control, provide economic relief to the American public,” she said.

Earlier in the week, Janet Yellen, Mr Biden’s choice for treasury secretary, added: “President 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.”

During the call with Mr Johnson, Mr Biden said he was ready to work with Mr Johnson at the G7 and United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) which are being hosted by the UK. According to the White House statement, Mr Biden and Mr Johnson also discussed their policies towards China, Iran and Russia.

Mr Biden’s call with Mr Johnson came after the British prime minister sought to play down the new US president’s decision to remove the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office, which raised some eyebrows in the UK, in a bid to build a relationship with him.

Mr Biden brought in busts of Martin Luther King Jr, the civil rights icon, and Robert F Kennedy, the former attorney-general, who were both assassinated in 1968, as he took office, replacing the decor chosen by Mr Trump.

“The Oval Office is the president’s private office and it is up to the president to decorate it as he wishes,” Mr Johnson’s spokesperson said on Thursday.”

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