Published On: Wed, Dec 7th, 2016

Brexit and Napoleon’s Continental System


Those of you who read or watched Sharpe, a book and TV series about a British soldier – played by Sean Bean – set during the Napoleonic Wars, will recall that Napoleon Bonaparte controlled most of continental Europe either directly or indirectly.

Napoleon had big plans. He not only wanted to dominate Europe, but also wanted to carve out an empire in the Americas.  The main focus of his attention was a colony in North America along the Mississippi river – the Louisiana Territory which had secretly been handed back to France after a brief period of ownership by Spain –  out into the Gulf of Mexico and into the Caribbean. The Caribbean island of Saint Domingue, a French colony, was key.  It was the richest colony in the Americas thanks to the production of sugar, coffee and indigo and prior to a slave revolt had  been a huge source of revenue for France.

To fulfil his plans he needed to cripple his main rival, Great Britain.

Napoleon had a problem with Britain.  Britain was a whale – a massive naval power – and France was an elephant – a massive land power.  It is very difficult for an elephant to fight a whale, for obvious reasons.  So Napoleon’s plan was to ban British trade with continental Europe.  This would damage Britain’s economy – a third of British trade went to Europe – thereby causing popular unrest in Britain which would eventually force Britain to come to terms with France.

So in 1806 and 1807 Napoleon issued two decrees which forced all allies of France and all neutral countries to cease trade with Britain.  Britain retaliated by a counter blockade which ended up angering the US and was one of the causes of the 1812 war between the US and the UK.  A war which most people have forgotten about as it was relatively inconsequential.  The most memorable aspect was that Britain set fire to the new city of Washington DC and burned down the President’s house, which was subsequently renamed the White House.

The blockade was not that effective and parts of Napoleon’s extended territories were unhappy with this arrangement.  Portugal was particularly unhappy and allowed British goods in.  This was one of the reasons for Napoleon’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula.  Russia – a neutral –  was also unhappy, and this was one of the reasons for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.  Both the Peninsular War and the Russian invasions were disasters for Napoleon and thus it could be credibly argued that the introduction of Napoleon’s Continental System was one of causes of the collapse of the Napoleonic Empire.

Nobody in the EU is suggesting that the UK is blocked from trading with EU member states after Brexit.  However, if there are tariffs between the UK and the EU, the UK will be at a trading disadvantage compared to other EU nations that are trading with each other.  If, as expected, the EU also places restrictions on the UK’s ability to import other goods from other parts of the world and then re-export them to the EU then the UK will also be hurt economically.

Britain would have every reason to fight this system.  UK government policy would be, by necessity, focused on undermining the EU so that the UK could trade with the EU on an equal basis compared to intra EU trade.  As with the Continental System, there will always be countries in continental Europe that will want access to UK trade, finance, goods and services.  All Britain would need to do is to support those countries who will want to undermine the EU from within.

The Continental System was one of the causes of the end of the Napoleonic Empire.  Hard Brexit could be one of the causes of the end of the EU.

History Future Now, ebook edition, is now available from the Apple iBookstore!  So if you have a iPad or iPhone click on this link to download it.  It is currently on at a special offer of 99c.   The Kindle version has been submitted to Amazon and should be available shortly.

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