US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have announced a new economic agreement that aims to boost ties on defence and renewable energy but falls short of the full free trade deal sought by the United Kingdom since its withdrawal from the European Union.
The two leaders unveiled the Atlantic Declaration on Thursday as Sunak made his first visit to the White House as prime minister.
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Under the new economic framework, the United States and the UK “resolve to partner to build resilient, diversified, and secure supply chains and reduce strategic dependencies” on countries such as China and Russia, according to a joint statement.
Speaking to reporters after his meeting with Biden, Sunak denied that the new partnership – which also included agreements to cooperate on strategic technologies and export controls and more securely share data – signalled that the UK’s pursuit of a free trade deal with Washington had failed.
Such an agreement had long been touted by supporters of the UK’s 2020 withdrawal from the EU but has remained elusive.
“If you look at what we’ve announced today, what it does respond to is the particular opportunities and challenges that we face right now and into the future,” Sunak said.
For his part, Biden underlined the joint decision to begin negotiations on strengthening the critical mineral supply chain, calling it a “key” component of the framework.
Both leaders hailed their commitment to work together on regulating artificial intelligence with Biden calling the myriad challenges posed by the emerging technology “staggering”.
Sunak announced this week that the UK would host the first global summit on the issue.
The prime minister has sought to position his country as a leader in the emerging race to address rapid AI developments – a goal that some say is undermined by its EU exit.
Thursday’s wide-ranging talks in Washington, DC, also touched on Russia’s war in Ukraine with both Biden and Sunak stressing that it was imperative for Western countries to maintain support for Kyiv.
The US and UK are the two biggest donors to Ukraine’s war effort and play a central role in a long-term project announced last month to train and eventually equip Ukrainian pilots with F-16 fighter jets.
Biden told reporters he was confident that the US Congress would continue to provide Ukraine with the funding it needs despite some hesitation among Republican leaders at the growing cost of the war for American taxpayers.
“The US and the UK have stood together to support Ukraine,” the US president said at the start of the meeting.
Meanwhile, the two leaders were asked about the future leadership of NATO after Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s term ends in October.
Sunak has been a vocal supporter of UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace for the post, but the prime ministers of Denmark and Estonia are also seen as contenders.
“It may be,” Biden said when asked if it was time for the alliance to have a British leader at the helm. “That remains to be seen.”
He added: “We’re going to have to get a consensus within NATO.”
Still, Biden on Thursday described the “special” relationship between the US and UK as being “in real good shape”.
Sunak also said the two leaders would “put our values front and centre to deliver for the British and American peoples”.
The leaders hailed the so-called AUKUS partnership – an agreement between the US, UK and Australia that will see Australia acquire at least three US nuclear submarines, widely seen as part of an effort to build a bulwark against Chinese military might in the Pacific.
They promised to work to strengthen the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed on April 10, 1998, by the British and Irish governments as well as Northern Ireland’s major political parties and sought to end decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
Sunak also struck a personal note at the start of the meeting, giving the US president relics of his English ancestry, including a copy of Biden’s great-great-grandfather Christopher Biden’s book, Naval Discipline: Subordination Contrasted with Insubordination.
Biden has both Irish and English heritage, and on a trip to Ireland in April, he described the book by the 19th century sailor as the royal navy’s guide to combating mutiny.