Boris Johnson and Joe Biden will on Thursday attempt to bury their differences by signing a 21st century “Atlantic charter”, committing Britain and the US to working together to tackle global challenges including the rise of an authoritarian China.
At their first face-to-face meeting, the UK prime minister and US president are expected to announce a task force charged with reopening transatlantic travel and agree in principle a deal to jointly develop technology, including artificial intelligence.
But the meeting in Cornwall ahead of the G7 summit is set to also involve tensions: Biden will urge Johnson to work with the EU to end the stand-off over post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Biden has been a critic of Johnson in the past, labelling him a “physical and emotional clone of Donald Trump” in 2019, and viewed Brexit as a mistake. He fears that it could destabilise the peace process in Northern Ireland.
Both sides have tried to reset the UK-US relationship ahead of Biden’s first presidential trip abroad and have decided to sign an Atlantic charter, 80 years after Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt mapped out a postwar global order.
Although Johnson is an admirer of Churchill, the new document is unlikely to have the same historical significance as the 1941 Atlantic charter, which led to the creation of the United Nations and Nato.
The 2021 document will outline eight broad areas of co-operation, including defending democracy, reaffirming the importance of collective security, building a fair trading system and dealing with cyber attacks.
China is not mentioned by name but the clear subtext is that the two leaders intend to co-operate in handling the strategic rivalry with Beijing. One British official said: “It’s not unreasonable to see a read-across to China.”
In an attempt to reinforce a sense of shared history, Johnson has asked his adviser John Bew, a history professor, to talk through with Biden some historical documents relating to the 1941 charter.
Johnson said: “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.
“Cooperation between the UK and US, the closest of partners and the greatest of allies, will be crucial for the future of the world’s stability and prosperity.”
Downing Street has confirmed that Johnson does not like Churchill’s phrase “special relationship” to describe the UK-US partnership — he is said to view it as “needy” — but in most other respects he is a big admirer of the wartime prime minister.
UK diplomats expect Biden, who was due to arrive in Britain on Wednesday evening, to put pressure on G7 countries to join the US in taking a tougher line with China.
Ahead of the G7 meeting at Carbis Bay, Cornwall, Johnson and Biden will set up a task force to explore restoring UK-US travel. The Biden administration has already begun to look at reopening international travel to Britain, the EU, Canada and Mexico.
Johnson and Biden will also set out plans for a technology agreement, to be signed next year, reducing the barriers that UK companies face when trying to work with their US counterparts in areas including AI.