The Conservative party talks about Europe so little these days that it is becoming unnatural, rather as if the Lib Dems had decided that the issue of PR was irrelevant. Ostensibly, this is because Europe is no longer a ‘live’ issue. It is no longer conceivable that we are going to join the euro, goes the argument, and the European constitution is dead. What, then, is there left to discuss? Eurosceptics can satisfy themselves that they can still stare longingly at the Queen every time they hand over a fiver; while the Tories’ pro-Europe wing can be grateful that the handbag-waving has come to an end. Conservatives, therefore, can call a truce and get on with fighting the government over what really matters: schools, hospitals and the like.
There is a certain rotund, cigar-loving figure who especially benefits from the assertion that the issue of Europe has been neutralised; whose chances of fulfilling his long-cherished ambition to lead the Conservative party are inversely proportional to the amount of party discussion on Europe over the next few months. Yet however great Ken Clarke’s qualities as a debater and political pugilist, the Tories’ Trappist silence over Europe simply will not do. Europe is not a dead issue. On the contrary, the need to join Europe’s battle of ideas grows greater by the day.
As we write, the warehouses of western Europe are groaning with three million bras, 17 million pairs of trousers and 48 million sweaters. There is no shortage of consumers who would love to be able to slip into all this kit. The only thing that stands in their way is the EU’s new quota system, introduced on 10 June, which severely limits the number of garments that can be imported into the European Union from China. As a result, clothes which had already been ordered by European retail chains have been impounded. The result will be shortages in the shops by Christmas and, inevitably, rising prices. In a Europe that has become used to low inflation (clothes prices have consistently fallen over the past decade in response to the freeing-up of global trade), it could come as a rude shock.
How did this absurdity arise? Mr Mandelson is not at the best of times temperamentally inclined to come between the British woman and her knickers, and nor did he have any intention of doing so on this occasion. As the British trade commissioner has pathetically confessed, he only agreed under duress from Se