Carbis Bay, England – President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met for the first time Thursday, looking to highlight their nations’ famed “special relationship” but doing so against a backdrop of differences both political and personal.
Biden hopes to use his first overseas trip as president to reassure European allies that the United States had shed the transactional tendencies of Donald Trump’s term and is a reliable partner again. Tensions could simmer beneath the surface, but the leaders immediately struck a tone of conviviality.
“I told the prime minister we have something in common. We both married way above our station,” Biden joked after a highly choreographed walk with their spouses.
Johnson laughed and said he was “not going to dissent from that one” but then seemed to hint that he would be looking to only improve relations with his American counterpart.
“I’m not going to disagree with you on that,” said Johnson, “or indeed on anything else.”
But there are areas of disagreement. The president staunchly opposed the Brexit movement, the British exodus from the European Union that Johnson championed, and has expressed great concern with the future of Northern Ireland. And Biden once called the British leader a “physical and emotional clone” of Trump.
The British government has worked hard to overcome that impression, stressing Johnson’s common ground with Biden on issues such as climate change and his support for international institutions. But Johnson, the host for the Group of Seven summit that will follow his sit-down with Biden, has been frustrated by the lack of a new trade deal with the United States.
Before their formal discussions, the two men looked back on illustrious wartime predecessor, inspecting documents related to the Atlantic Charter, a declaration signed by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in August 1941 setting out common goals for the world after World War II, including freer trade, disarmament and the right to self-determination of all people.
Johnson noted that the charter laid the foundation for the United Nations and NATO.
“Yeah, I know,” said Biden, who later pumped his fist when he – incorrectly – suggested that Neville Chamberlain slipped a reference to labor unions into the document, an unlikely salute for the disgraced appeaser on the eve of the war.
The leaders had planned to visit the spectacular island of St. Michael’s Mount but the trip was scrapped because of bad weather. Instead, they met above the beach at the G-7 site in Carbis Bay, staring out at the ocean while trading pleasantries.
Both couples – Johnson is newly married – held hands as they walked. First lady Jill Biden’s black jacket had “LOVE” embroidered on the upper back – a fashion move that recalled her predecessor Melania Trump’s decision to wear a jacket with “I really don’t care, do u?” on the back during a 2018 trip to a Texas border town.
The first lady told reporters that the president was “over prepared” for his meetings during his week in Europe, including a trip-ending summit with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
“He’s been studying for weeks, working up to today,” she said. “Joe loves foreign policy.”
The leaders were expected to announce a new U.S.-U.K. task force to work on resuming travel between the two nations, according to a White House official. Most travel has been banned between the two nations since March 2020.
Both sides have stressed publicly that the meeting would be about reaffirming ties between longtime allies in a week in which Biden will look to rally the West to rebuff Russian meddling and publicly demonstrate it can compete economically with China.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan described Biden’s initial calls with Johnson as “warm” and “constructive” and played down any differences between the two nations’ goals.
“They’ve been very much down…