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Boris Johnson's phone call diplomacy: What does it say about what's next?

“PM Johnson is positioning the United Kingdom as the British equivalent of ‘America First’,” Professor Federico Fabbrini said.

Boris Johnson announces Thames boat service Boris Johnson rides aboard a Thames Clipper during his time as London Mayor. April 2009.

THREE WEEKS HAVE passed since Boris Johnson fulfilled a long-held, long-predicted ambition to become British Prime Minister, and we’ve still not been given much information to discern what his plans are for the UK.

What we do have, for sure, is his speech outside 10 Downing Street, patches of insight from statements at various events, and dozens of phone conversations he has had with world leaders.

In one day, 6 August, the UK government press office sent out 14 emails sharing details of Johnson’s calls with various politicians, including the outgoing European Council President Jean-Claude Juncker, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe.  

In most of his calls with EU leaders, Johnson reiterated that he wants a Brexit deal, and will be “energetic in pursuit of finding a way forward”, but emphasised that to reach a deal the so-called “anti-democratic backstop” must be “abolished”.

“Any new UK Prime Minister would have a number of engagements with his peers around the world,” says Prof Federico Fabbrini Director of the DCU Brexit Institute about the flurry of global telecommunications activity.

“The Prime Minister of the UK would immediately try to strike up relationships with his peers, but what’s different here is that it took a bit of time for Boris Johnson to start doing that. He was longer than his predecessor to liaise with world leaders, because he was busy travelling throughout the UK in his first days.

In Johnson’s first days in office, he didn’t make an immediate effort to reach out to his peers in Europe, like French President Emmanuel Macron or German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which sends a signal of his lack of interest in Europe.

The delayed phone call with the Taoiseach, which took place 10 days after Johnson took office was another “remarkable” example of this disinterest, Fabbrini says.

This is the leader of a country which has had close engagement with the UK because of the Good Friday Agreement.

Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar spoke over the phone a week after the former assumed office; in previous years the two neighbouring countries would have spoken the day the new UK leader took office.

The Telegraph reports today that UK businesses will be told about opportunities that will be made available after Brexit as part of a national £138 million public information campaign. 

A Whitehall source told the paper that ”one thing [businesses] can prepare for is the export opportunities” arising from the UK being able to strike its own free trade deals with non-EU countries.

The meaty part: Trade deals

Future free trade deals and other economic ties between the UK and non-EU countries will be the real marker of whether Brexit will have been worth it. So these calls with world leaders are just the start of possible future trading ties post-Brexit.

Johnson is trying to reproduce Donald Trump’s approach of not fully sustaining his current international relationships, and going it alone, Fabbrini says, but notes that the UK is not the same as the US, in terms of size, scale and influence.

The key message that emerges from the first few weeks of Johnson’s premiership is that Johnson is positioning the United Kingdom as the British equivalent of ‘America First’.

During Johnson’s recent call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they agreed “to look for new ways to build” on their relationship when the UK leaves the EU, “including by stepping up trading ties”.

Johnson said something similar during his call with the Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi: “The PM acknowledged the significance of Egypt as a market for British investment.”

In a call with King Hamad of Bahrain, the King spoke of the Johnson importance of trade between the UK and Gulf Cooperation Council, emphasising his ambition “to increase that trade post-Brexit”.

Interestingly, there was no mention of trade during Johnson’s phone call with the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

In his phone call with Japan’s premier Abe, the tone was more urgent: He said they both were committed to an “ambitious” free trade deal that would build on the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement earlier this year. The statement added:

“The Prime Minister was clear on the importance of Japanese investment in the UK, and the need to ensure a smooth transition for businesses through the UK’s exit from the EU, whatever the circumstances.

“They will have been engaging in negotiations on future trade deals,” Fabbrini says of the calls, but adds that it’s “highly unlikely that they have made progress”.

Japan will have no interest in redoing a trade deal from scratch with Britain, after having just struck a deal with the EU, it’s the same with Canada after the Ceta deal.
Countries that don’t have a trade deal with the EU will of course be looking to strike up a deal with the UK post-Brexit, but the biggest economies all have an EU trade deal – except America. 

Johnson’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has also been busy wooing countries during an Asia-Pacific tour and a quick trip to the US, Canada and Mexico during his first two weeks in office.

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After visiting Canada and the United States during a tour of North America, Raab said in Mexico city that “this is just the moment” for the UK and Mexico to do more together, while the Mexican government said it was prepared to work on developing an “ambitious” trade deal with a post-Brexit UK.

Raab also secured assurances from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who agreed to sign a bilateral trade deal as soon as possible after Brexit, and John Bolton of course said that the UK would be “first in the queue” for a “great” trade deal after it leaves the EU. 

But what happens when two nations that have putting themselves first as their prime focus try to negotiate a trade deal?

“The limit of the nationalist economic agenda that clashes with the global reality,” Fabbrini says, adding that the UK would have to do something that the EU was unwilling to, and lower standards for food and other products to strike up a trade deal.

Of course [they would have to accept lower standard goods], there’s no doubt about it, that was the problem the EU had with negotiating a trade deal with the US, where the US asked Europe to allow chlorinated chicken or hormone-growth beef into its market.
If the UK seeks to negotiate something with the US, it would have to accept that – the question is whether it would benefit them socially or politically.

Because of these limitations in trade deals that Johnson can do post-Brexit, it’s hard to see how the negative impacts of a no-deal Brexit could be negated by other trading arrangements. 

A slight segue into Johnson’s intentions 

Earlier this week, in a Facebook video that Johnson’s team called ‘People’s PMQs’, Johnson was asked who his favourite political heroes were, and after the obligatory Churchill mention, he answered:

“But also Pericles of Athens, who believed in all sorts of wonderful things, he certainly believed in great infrastructure projects, and also believed in the importance of the many, not the few.

“But above all, Pericles will go down as one of the most powerful articulators of the idea of democracy, which is that the people are ultimately in charge of their own destiny.”

Without reading too much into that choice, Pericles was a Greek leader from 461 to 429 BC, and was lauded for building within the country and strengthening democratic functions within the state. More interestingly in this context, though, he halted a policy of expanding the Athenians’ territory and instead preserved the status quo, protecting what they already had, a choice that wasn’t particularly welcomed by his citizens.

One of the central motivators behind Brexit is to end the UK’s close-knit and lucrative trade deal with the European Union, in favour of more beneficial trade deals with other non-EU countries.

The UK is also hoping for a good, fair trade deal with the EU itself post-Brexit; whether that wish is fulfilled depends on whether there’s a deal or not, and how relations between Johnson and the new leading figures of the European Union progress.

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