Snap election upside for Irish business – time for a slow Brexit

Cantillon: New timeframe avoids the sudden imposition of customs controls and tariffs

There is one possible significant plus for Irish business from the decision of British prime minister Theresa May to call a general election in the UK. It is that it makes the whole idea of a transition period more plausible. And for Ireland, this is vital.

Pretty much everyone agrees there is no way that, by the time Britain leaves the European Union in March 2019, it will also have agreed a new trade deal for the future. These trade talks are likely to run well after 2019, and thus into the period which would have led up to a general election.

Now, after the June poll, the subsequent election will be delayed until 2022. This makes the negotiation of what is in effect a slower withdrawal from full EU membership more likely, even if this is dressed up as a transition period which will apply after formal membership ends in March 2019 and before a new trade deal is done.

There is now talk that the prime minister may, politically, be able to agree for free movement of people to continue for a period after Britain leaves the EU and for Britain to remain subject to at least some EU laws. This is likely to be the price demanded by the EU side for allowing Britain to stay in the customs union for a period, possibly until a new trade deal is finalised.


Of course, there is a lot of speculation here. It presumes May will be able to sideline the harder Brexit lobby after the election and that is far from guaranteed. It also depends on Britain and the EU being able to get over the first hurdle – agreeing how much Britain owes to pay for its divorce.

But Britain badly needs a slow and negotiated Brexit – and so does Ireland – to avoid the sudden imposition of customs controls and tariffs in 2019.

On Wednesday, the body in charge of Britain’s ports provided a counterpoint to May’s fine phrases about Brexit. The threat, they pointed out, if physical customs checks come back, was of long queues at Britain’s ports and huge disruption to the supply chain.

The same would apply here, for goods moving between Ireland and the UK. A transition period would, at least, push back this threat and allow companies a bit more time to adapt.