US President-elect Joe Biden
US President-elect Joe Biden Image Credit: Reuters

If you’re an angler, the clear and wide waters of the River Moy are a dream. Right now, the salmon are running upstream from the Atlantic Ocean, being driven from a deeply ingrained desire to return to the coast of Mayo in northwest Ireland, find the River Moy’s mouth at Killala Bay, and swim upstream through Ballina to spawn and begin a new life cycle.

The land in the Mayo hills is harsh and it has been too hard for too many to make a living in bad times or good. The Blewitts left here three generations ago. But like the salmon in the river that keep coming back, so too do their descendants. The Bidens sit very comfortably with their cousins in Ballina, visit regularly, and the good folk of the town of 10,000 are already planning to rename a square there after the 46th President.

They expect a visit too when Biden comes to this side of the Atlantic. That visit too will likely include a raft of European capitals. Brussels, the home of the European Union and the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation will very likely be on the list. Berlin and Paris too — both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron were on the receiving end of less-than-diplomatic blunt Trump barbs these past years. With Biden’s success, Berlin, Paris and Brussels can reset the button on Nato. His victory is welcome news indeed.

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But what of the United Kingdom and Prime Minister Boris Johnson? And what of that much-vaunted “special relationship” between America and Britain that days back to Roosevelt and Churchill, Reagan and Thatcher, the junior Bush and Blair.

Don’t get me wrong — Air Force One will be touching down in the UK on that circuit of Ballina and European capitals — but Biden is no fan of the Brexit project. For four decades working on the floor of the US Senate, the member from Delaware soaked up foreign policy, was an avowed globalist, savoured the strength of Nato, admired the peace and stability brought by the European Union to a continent that was twice destroyed by war of unfathomable scales.

In September, he warned Johnson’s government that it must do nothing to undermine the peace and stability on the island of Ireland, must treat the Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of political and sectarian strife on the island as sacrosanct, and must abide by the rule of international law.

And Brexit — either in its deal or no-deal format — threatens those.

Overriding EU Withdrawal Agreement

On Monday night in London, while President-Elect Biden was working on his transition plans to restore his nation’s standing, the members of the House of Lords were voting on Johnson’s plans to break international law by allowing his ministers to override the EU Withdrawal Agreement.

That’s the plan Johnson himself negotiated, campaigned on and won his majority on. Now, less than a year after that deal was reached, Johnson has said it is intrinsically flawed by putting a customs line down the Irish Sea between the islands of Britain and Ireland. That was the only way forward to avoid that return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the south.

The initial bill passed the House of Commons in September but 30 of Johnson’s MPs abstained and two voted against. On Monday night in the House of Lords, Johnson was handed a resounding defeat, with peers voting 433 to 165 to reject the Internal Market Bill. It now goes back to the Commons with the controversial clauses removed. But Johnson says the clauses allowing ministers to break international law will be reinserted, and MPs will vote again.

This is where coronavirus comes into play. Since the pandemic began, there is a growing sense of unease in the Conservative party at Johnson’s handling of the crisis. There have been some 15 major U-turns of policy reversals from his government, there is a sense of drift, a feeling that it ought to be doing things differently. Communicating better.

Second national lockdown 

Last week, when the Johnson government put its plans for a second national lockdown to parliament, there were Conservative abstentions and 34 of the party’s MPs voted against the measure.

So what happens if and when Johnson presses ahead with his plans to override international law, permitting his ministers to break it — a most un-British and un-Conservative position? All five of the living former Prime ministers have rounded on it. How many Conservative MPs will vote against the measure? Is it a loss of political capital that Johnson would be prepared to risk?

As things stand now, there are about three weeks left when negotiators can hammer out the terms of the future relationship between London and Brussels. A no-deal Brexit is looming — or at least a Brexit with a deal that’s very light on details and could fit on a foolscap sheet of paper: Flimsy and lacking substance — which might indeed be watchwords for the Johnson government itself.

The good folks of Brussels are waiting to see how this pans out. So too to good folks of Ballina. Those anglers on the River Moy know how to play with rod and reel, when to strike, and when to cast a catch aside.

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe