It is in Book III of "War and Peace" that Tolstoy memorably
describes the Battle of Austerlitz "the battle of the three
emperors" the 200th anniversary of which fell on Friday. This
was the greatest victory of Napoleon Bonaparte's career. At the
time, it seemed far more important than his navy's defeat at
Trafalgar two months before. Its consequences are still with us.
By routing the combined armies of Austria and Russia, Austerlitz
enabled Napoleon literally to redraw the map of Europe, conjuring up
a new Confederation of the Rhine from the Baltic to the Alps.
Moreover, by obliging the Austrian Emperor Francis to renounce the
title of Holy Roman Emperor, Napoleon snuffed out an institution
that had been at the heart of Europe for more than a millennium.
Napoleon's idea of Europe was double-edged. On the one hand, he
overthrew decadent dynasties such as the Bourbons of Naples and
established what was to become the model for Continental legal
systems, the Code Napoléon. Later, in exile, he claimed that he had
"wished to found a European system, a European code of laws, a
European judiciary" so that "there would be one people in Europe."
Yet, at the same time, Napoleonic Europe was without question an
What finally killed Napoleon's Europe was the fatal combination of
the English Channel and the Russian winter. Nevertheless, it proved
impossible to restore the old pre-Napoleonic Europe.
Napoleon fell; Bonapartism lived on, with the civil code and
economic dirigisme as perhaps its most enduring legacies.
And how they have endured! Ask yourself what are the biggest
differences between England and the Continent?
The answer is that the Europeans have Napoleonic law and economics,
and the English, whom he did not conquer, have common law and the
Which is why Tony Blair must often feel that Napoleon's ghost has
come back to haunt him. As prime minister of the country that
currently holds the presidency of the European Union, Blair not
unreasonably expects to play a leading role in European affairs. Yet
his efforts to reform the EU's budget have brought him into
collision with almost anyone who has an opinion on this baffling
Frankly, the details don't much matter. But the nonsensical system
epitomizes that fundamental non-meeting of British and continental
European minds, which is the reason the 30-year cross-Channel
marriage has been so troubled.
Yet perhaps, on reflection, it is not quite right to ascribe Blair's
difficulties to the persistence of the Bonapartist tradition on the
For one thing, I am no longer sure how committed the English really
are to either their own legal tradition or their own economic
tradition. At the same time, on closer inspection, the EU, as
presently constituted, looks less like the rationalized Europe of
Napoleon's dreams and more like the ancien régime Europe he
tried to get rid of.
Voltaire famously said of the Holy Roman Empire that it was neither
holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Perhaps something similar could be
said of the EU, which seems less European and less united with every
passing year. For how much longer will the EU really be European,
given the profound demographic changes that are inexorably
increasing the Muslim share of its population to say nothing
of Turkey, negotiating to become its newest and, before long,
And is the enlarged European Union really a union, in the sense that
the United States or the United Kingdom are, or something more like
a Eurabian Disunion? At best it is a confederation. At worst it's a
mess of overlapping treaties and jurisdictions.
In our age of attention deficit disorders, 200 years can seem an
impossibly long time ago. Yet the bicentenary of Austerlitz is more
than a matter of antiquarian curiosity. For remembering how Napoleon
killed off the Holy Roman Empire not only helps to illuminate the
subsequent divergence of Britain from the European continent, it
also may give us an inkling of the future.
Who, I wonder, will be the next Napoleon the one who rides
into Brussels to sweep away the Holy Roman Empire of our time?