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British Foreign Secretary visits Washington at difficult time

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LONDON When British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab arrives in Washington for a visit this week, he will take extra baggage as an envoy: his country is eager to secure a trade deal with the United States, but his government has just presented a bill that would amount to a historic treaty with the European Union.

It might not matter much to the Trump administration. President Trump has given up his share of international agreements and is deeply hostile to the European Union. His staff will probably warmly welcome Mr. Raab, a committed member of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexiteers group.

But it could hurt Britain if the White House changes hands after the November election.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has opposed Brexit and would make a trade deal with Britain less of a priority than Mr Trump has. He is also a strong supporter of Ireland, which could spark tensions if Mr Johnson insists on the new legislation, which would revise the way the Northern Irish border is treated.

Every administration, regardless of which political party it represents, brings with it different approaches, Mr Raab said in an interview Monday in his Whitehall office. We have the agility and sensitivity to deal with this.

Mr Raab has defended legislation that would give Britain the power to change customs procedures for Northern Ireland if it cannot agree on permanent trade deals with the European Union as a preventative response , defensive and proportionate to what the EU does.

But it has stirred Democrats in Congress, who fear it will lead to the resurrection of a hard border in Ireland. It would threaten the Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. They warn it would torpedo a transatlantic trade deal in Congress.

What were they thinking? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week, referring to Mr Johnsons’ decision to revise the Withdrawal Agreement. Either way, I hope they don’t think about a bilateral trade deal between the US and the UK.

On Wednesday at Capitol Hill, Mr Raab will meet Ms Pelosi, as well as Representative Richard E. Neal, the Democrat of Massachusetts, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and influential advocate for Ireland’s interests. Mr Neal said he met Mr Raab a few months ago and had been blinded by the latest changes in government policy towards Northern Ireland.

They always seem to be saying: No problem, we will never disrupt the Good Friday Agreement, Mr Neal said in a telephone interview. And then they take positions that disrupt the Good Friday Agreement.

In fact, argued Mr Raab, it is the European Union that is jeopardizing peace in Northern Ireland by insisting on a border between it and the single European market. To avoid a border dividing the island of Ireland in two, London and Brussels have instead agreed on a border that goes up and down the Irish Sea.

Mr Johnson said without a permanent trade deal, however, the European Union could use the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol to unravel the UK. Mr Raab complained that the bloc was trying to impose terms on Britain different from those it offered to countries like Canada or South Korea.

Any self-respecting democracy the size of the UK would push back on that, he said.

But that’s not how many British leaders see it.

The five former prime ministers, including three Tories, have warned that going back on the deal would hurt British morals. How, some wonder, can Britain condemn China for violating its agreement with Britain on Hong Kong when it is ready to violate a legal treaty with the European Union?

Mr. Raab rejected the comparison.

I don’t think there is moral equivalence, or indeed equivalence in international law, between what we see in Hong Kong in relation to the Joint Declaration and what we see in relation, as I see it. I said, the precautionary measures taken, said Mr. Raab, who trained as an international lawyer.

The tensions over Northern Ireland come even as Britain has eased its main source of friction with the Trump administration: China. Mr Johnson has acceded to Mr Trumps’ request that Britain cut off Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei’s access to its 5G network. And Britain’s criticism of China’s crackdown on Hong Kong has been hailed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Mr Raab, however, has suggested that Britain will try to draw some common ground between the Trump administration’s hawkish stance on China and the European Union’s more conciliatory approach. Britain, he said, was still seeking a cooperative relationship with Beijing on issues such as climate change.

We don’t think it’s inevitable, and we don’t want it to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, for us to slip into some kind of cold war dead end, he said.

Mr Raab, who as a young man volunteered at a kibbutz in Israel and later worked in the West Bank, said he was encouraged by the news that Israel would normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain . He said the Palestinians should seize the moment to resume talks with Israel.

This is a great opportunity for them now, as annexation has been taken off the table for the foreseeable future, Mr Raab said.

Iran is an issue on which a Biden presidency could make life easier for Britain. He recently refused to support the Trump administration in its solitary attempt to restore United Nations sanctions against the Iranians. We were looking for a resolution that could be adopted, Mr Raab said strongly.

As you might expect, he avoided American politics in the interview.

The British goal, he said, was to add value to the United States, highlighting a summit meeting they are hosting at the United Nations General Assembly on coronavirus vaccines and a project multibillion-dollar aid to alleviate potential famine in war-torn Yemen.

We don’t just have water under the bridge with the United States, Mr. Raab said. It’s a deep friendship.

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