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The EU is suffering from a Napoleon complex that will backfire disastrously - by Robert Tombs

Here is another brilliant article from Professor Robert Tombs for the Telegraph 06.03.21


Europe is using trade as a weapon, but the result is likely to be the same as the last time this was tried

In those far-off days when the debate over Brexit was still raging, its proponents – including the present Prime Minister – were indignantly criticised for making sweeping comparisons with great struggles of the past: the Spanish Armada, the Napoleonic Wars, even 1940. What could be more absurd, said critics, and what more insulting to our European friends and neighbours than to imply that they had imperialistic ambitions?

All the more surprising, then, when a similar comparison comes from across the Channel. The former French ambassador to the UK, Sylvie Bermann, whose not very diplomatic book Goodbye Britannia has caused a stir, says that Brexit “has succeeded in bringing together a continental bloc of 27 countries. This was the famous blockade organised by Napoleon, and which England so feared.” So says one of France’s most distinguished diplomats.

The comparison of the EU with Napoleon’s Continental System is interesting not only for its threatening tone but for what it may say about the unspoken assumptions of the European elite. First, is the notion that, in a world of hostile blocs, the whole European economy is a weapon to be wielded against an awkward opponent. Clearly, too, a resurgence of the latent French belief that perfidious Albion is always trying to disrupt France’s obviously high-minded plans. Along with this comes the self‑pitying conclusion that Britain – or “England” – is to blame for subsequent difficulties, and that if only we were not so arrogant, we would go along with what the French are trying to do.

As Napoleon put it: “All my wars came from England.”

The Continental System – that of Napoleon – was intended to destroy Britain economically after the failure to defeat it politically. “England will weep tears of blood”, as he put it. Europe was still its biggest market, and to hit at its exports would bring the “nation of shopkeepers” to heel.

What of Madame Bermann’s Continental System? Presumably the intention is similar, otherwise there would be no point in the comparison. Aggressive interpretation of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement to maximise non-tariff barriers, extreme applications of the Northern Ireland Protocol to put pressure on the British Government at its weakest spot, the fabrication of health concerns to disrupt existing trade, even the assumption of the power to block vaccine exports: this is all part of the game.

There is another parallel with Napoleon. When France and Britain signed the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, ending 10 years of war, the British regarded it as a first step. George III called it an “experimental peace”. They hoped for further confidence-building measures on the way to normalising relations with the great European empire. But French diplomats were set on exploiting the letter of the treaty to the full, demanding that Britain execute every jot and tittle while they prepared for further conflict.

Can this be the sort of relationship that proponents of today’s Continental System have in mind? If so, they should reflect on how the story ended.

Napoleon’s attempt to subordinate the economic interests of the whole of Europe to his political aim of defeating Britain led to massive evasion of the rules. British goods, even in the days of sailing ships and horses and carts, reached the Continent by semi-legal and illegal means, to the great profit of those involved. Some of Napoleon’s satellites refused to join in. People rebelled against the economic cost, even his own politicians. His great empire eventually fell apart.

And today? Will Europe, led by an unyielding France, allow its interests to be subordinated to an ideological vision? Or will businesses and their employees accept that Brexit has happened and that a mutually beneficial relationship is in their interests? German exports to the UK, one of its most important markets, have slumped. French senators have expressed worries for their own businesses. Napoleon’s use of the Continental System not only to damage Britain but also to profit France, including at the expense of its allies, was a further reason for their disaffection. The French government today is similarly intent on benefiting the Parisian financial sector by forcing business away from London, even if this – by general admission – will cost other European businesses dear.

It’s easy to see parallels. But there is also a big difference. Napoleon was a man of undeniable ability, drive and vision. The leaders of the EU today are daily proving their lack of these qualities. I would not have believed them capable of the ineptitude shown over the Covid crisis, the recklessness of their suspension of the Northern Ireland Protocol for transparently specious reasons, their amoral haste to draw closer to Russia and China, and even the refusal to allow export of the Oxford vaccine to Australia.

“It’s worse than a crime, it’s a blunder,” said the clever cynic Talleyrand of one of Napoleon’s decisions. What would he say of the EU today? Robert Tombs is the author of ‘This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe’ and is Emeritus Professor of French History, University of Cambridge

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