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Biden, Johnson Chart Path for U.S.-U.K. Ties

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PLYMOUTH, England—President Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to counter the influence of autocratic states during their first in-person meeting Thursday and looked to smooth over disagreements regarding a complex arrangement to manage trade and preserve peace in Northern Ireland after Brexit.

Ahead of the Group of Seven meeting this week, the two leaders backed a wide-ranging document that charts a path forward from a global pandemic that has killed millions, as the virus continues spreading in some parts of the world. In a five-page joint statement, they agreed to measures including deepening trading links, better cooperating to prepare for future pandemics and supporting the World Health Organization’s probe into the origins of Covid-19.

Since taking office, President Biden has pushed to expand the U.S.’s global influence in everything from climate change to defense. WSJ looks at how he could leverage ties with world leaders to help his foreign-policy agenda during his first trip overseas. Photo: Phil Noble/Press Pool

“We affirmed the special relationship—that is not said lightly—the special relationship between our people and renewed our commitment to defending the enduring democratic values that both our nations share,” Mr. Biden said after the meeting. Mr. Johnson said that the meeting, which lasted more than an hour, was like “a breath of fresh air.”

They also agreed on a document—dubbed the “Atlantic Charter,” after the joint statement made by then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 when they set out their approach to a post-World War II world—that lays out broad principles to which the countries will adhere.

The documents were light on detail. The countries have set up a task force aimed at reopening U.K.-U.S. travel, but with no timeline for doing so. The two sides also pledged to continue trade talks, which are currently stalled, but offered few specifics on timing.

Brexit is another source of tension. The leaders discussed Northern Ireland, amid a dispute between the U.K. and the European Union over a complex arrangement to manage trade and preserve peace there.

At issue is a post-Brexit agreement aimed at avoiding a hard border between Ireland, which is in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which is in the U.K. Instead, the U.K. and the EU have agreed to border checks on goods heading from Britain to Northern Ireland, effectively placing a border of sorts within the U.K. The EU and the U.K. are embroiled in a standoff over how the rules are implemented, as the British government balks over customs checks stymieing trade within the U.K.

The EU says the terms of the Brexit deal must be respected to preserve peace on the island of Ireland.

Mr. Biden, who often talks about his Irish heritage, is concerned that disagreement between the U.K. and EU could threaten a 1998 peace accord known as the Good Friday Agreement, his advisers said.

On Thursday, both leaders pledged to work together to protect the peace on the island of Ireland. “It will take a continued and ongoing partnership to advance and safeguard Northern Ireland’s stability and prosperity into the future,” they said in a joint statement. Mr. Johnson said there was “complete harmony” over the issue.

Biden administration officials said the U.S. doesn’t want to get directly involved in the negotiations between the U.K. and the EU. A senior Biden administration official said the U.S. has previously raised the same concerns privately with British officials.

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Other topics that Mr. Biden discussed with Mr. Johnson included the economy, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Russia and counterterrorism, officials said.

Mr. Biden also announced Thursday plans to donate 500 million vaccine doses produced by

Pfizer Inc.

to 92 lower-income countries and the African Union. Mr. Johnson’s office said the U.K. will donate 100 million surplus vaccine doses to the rest of the world within the next year. World leaders are expected to say they will provide at least one billion doses “through dose sharing and financing and set out a plan to expand vaccine manufacturing in order to achieve that goal,” Mr. Johnson’s office said ahead of the summit.

The meeting with Mr. Johnson came at the start of Mr. Biden’s eight-day trip to Europe, his first foreign travel since becoming president. Mr. Biden will participate in the G-7 meeting of leaders from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.K. He then will travel to Brussels for a summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and he will meet in Geneva with Russian President

Vladimir Putin.

During the trip, Mr. Biden is planning to emphasize his relationships with powerful global democracies in a bid to counter autocracies like Russia and China, according to his advisers.

“I believe we’re at an inflection point in world history—the moment where it falls to us to prove that democracies won’t just endure, but they will excel as we rise to seize the enormous opportunities of a new age,” Mr. Biden told U.S. Air Force personnel stationed at Royal Air Force Mildenhall on Wednesday after arriving in the U.K.

While Mr. Biden, who traveled the world as vice president and as a senator, has longstanding relationships with many world leaders, he has had few interactions with Mr. Johnson. The two leaders have spoken by phone, but Thursday was their first face-to-face meeting.

Mr. Johnson developed close ties with former President

Donald Trump,

who was a vocal backer of Brexit.

During his presidential campaign, Mr. Biden called Mr. Johnson a “physical and emotional clone” of Mr. Trump, comments that were interpreted by observers as a criticism of the U.K. leader. Mr. Biden also opposed Brexit, which Mr. Johnson championed.

From the outset of Thursday’s meeting, Mr. Johnson looked to charm the U.S. president. “I told the prime minister we have something in common. We both married way above our station,” Mr. Biden said as they greeted one another. Mr. Johnson replied, “I’m not going to dissent from that one. I’m not going to disagree with you on that. Or indeed on anything else.”

The U.K. government has sought to align itself with the Biden administration on nearly all major foreign-policy topics from climate to China. Both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Biden have adopted the slogan “Build Back Better.” The U.K. is deploying its new aircraft carrier to the Indo-Pacific region as a show of support for NATO, and a recent U.K. foreign policy review concluded that the country viewed the U.S. as a crucial partner.

G-7 delegations are arriving in the U.K. as it is grappling with a new Covid-19 variant that has resulted in an increase in cases. The highly transmissible variant, which first emerged in India and is known as the Delta variant, has spread to dozens of countries and is now the dominant variant in the U.K.

More on Biden’s European Trip

Write to Andrew Restuccia at [email protected] and Max Colchester at [email protected]

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