FALMOUTH, England – President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sized each other up in person Thursday for the first time since Biden took office.
Despite fears that Biden would hold an obvious grudge against Britain’s sometimes controversial and unpredictable leader for his enthusiastic support of President Donald Trump’s populist policies – as well as simmering tensions over what Brexit could mean for peace in Northern Ireland – both leaders’ first big moment on the global stage got off to a mutually agreeable start – at least in public.
“It’s gorgeous. I don’t want to go home,” Biden said as he and Johnson, joined by their wives, Jill and Carrie, respectively, stood on a deck over St. Ives Bay, a majestic stretch of beach that looks out to rugged headlands in this part of southwestern England. The Group of Seven summit, a meeting of the world’s wealthy industrialized nations, takes place here June 11-13. The coronavirus pandemic and climate change are among the topics under discussion.
“Fantastic to see you,” Johnson said.
Beyond the pleasantries, there was substance to their talks.
Here are the takeaways:
Easing COVID-19 travel restrictions
Biden and Johnson launched a travel task force that will make policy recommendations about safely opening up international travel between the U.K. and USA.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, more than 4.5 million Americans visited the U.K. every year, and more than 5 million British nationals traveled to the USA annually.
No specific timing on when the task force would be operational was announced. British scientists said the U.K. may be starting to see a third wave of coronavirus infections as a result of the Delta variant first detected in India.
Inspired by Churchill and Roosevelt: A new ‘Atlantic Charter’
The creation of the travel task force was announced as part of a broad “Atlantic Charter” aimed at “tackling the greatest challenges of our time” from global defense to climate change, Johnson’s office said. The charter is modeled on a historic joint statement made by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 setting out their goals for the postwar world. It will encompass defending democracy as a political system and building a sustainable global trading system.
“While Churchill and Roosevelt faced the question of how to help the world recover following a devastating war, today we have to reckon with a very different but no less intimidating challenge – how to build back better from the coronavirus pandemic,” Johnson said.
He and Biden viewed some historical documents connected to the original charter.
Biden ‘rock-solid’ on Good Friday Agreement
In their meeting, Biden was likely to press Johnson over how Brexit, the U.K.’s exit from the European Union, could affect the Good Friday Agreement, the peace treaty in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland remained part of the U.K after Brexit, but Ireland is in the EU, and frictionless – or borderless – trade across the EU political bloc has partially underwritten stability on the Irish border for several decades. Johnson’s government has struggled to come up with an alternative acceptable to the EU, and Ireland is an issue that’s close to Biden’s heart because of his family ties to the nation.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said in a briefing on Air Force One before the president landed in the U.K. on Wednesday, “Any steps that imperil or undermine the Good Friday Agreement will not be welcomed by the U.S.”
Sullivan said, “The president (will not) issue threats or (an) ultimatum … (he) has been crystal clear about his rock-solid belief in the Good Friday agreement as the foundation for peaceful coexistence in Northern Ireland. The agreement must be protected.”
Vaccines doses for the world
Biden announced that the United States purchased 500 million doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to donate to 92 low-income countries and the African Union.
Wealthy nations have been under pressure to share their vaccine surplus with the rest of the world. The U.S. donations will start shipping in August, distributed through the global vaccine alliance known as COVAX; 200 million will be shared this year, and the remaining 300 million will be donated through the first half of 2022.
“America knows firsthand the tragedies of this pandemic,” Biden said. Nearly 600,000 people in the USA have died from COVID-19 – more U.S. deaths than in both World Wars, the Vietnam War and the 9/11 terrorist attacks combined.
“We know the tragedy,” Biden said. “We also know the path to recovery.”
Biden called COVID-19 “the current enemy of world peace” and warned that “just as the American economy is recovering, it is in all of our interests to have the global economy begin to recover as well.”
“That won’t happen unless we can get this pandemic under control worldwide,” he said.