Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte

In the superb 1927 silent film "Napoleon", by French director Abel Gance, there is a curious moment when the Corsican hero of the film, portrayed by Albert Dieudonné, muses prophetically that one day Europe will be united by neither cannon nor cavalry charge but by treaties and pieces of paper.

Thirty years on from that film the Treaty of Rome came into existence and what would become the EU was born. Now, just as Great Britain proved to be the bane of Napoleon's career, "perfidious Albion" remains persistently resistant to "ever closer union".

Every time the prospect of leaving comes up europhiles state that should Britain exit the EU millions of British jobs would be put in jeopardy and that trade with Europe would practically come to a standstill.

But how realistic is this?

Interestingly enough our old friend Napoleon provides a great example from history as to what could happen.

Realising that he could never hope to invade Britain (thanks to Lord Nelson) Napoleon decided to try and hit Britain where it really hurt by strangling its trade.

In 1806 Napoleon introduced the "Continental System" (sound vaguely familiar?) which shut the ports of mainland Europe to British goods and included the impounding of British goods and the arrest of British citizens abroad.

This bout of ultra-protectionism did hurt British industry to some extent and yet the System was a disastrous failure for two reasons.

First of all the people of Europe and even Napoleon's most trusted subordinates, such as Marshal Massena and even his own brother Louis Bonaparte, continued to do and allow business with Britain, because they wanted to make money and because there was high demand for quality British goods.

The blockade was so ineffective that when Napoleon's Grande Armée invaded Russia in 1812, many of its soldiers were wearing boots from Northamptonshire and coats made from Yorkshire cloth! Ironically French officials not even supply their army without buying goods from their enemy Britain.

Secondly the blockade rebounded on Napoleon when Great Britain retaliated with its own Orders in Council, which was rather more effective as a blockade against the continent. According to the renowned (but now deceased) Napoleonic historian David Chandler, the British response made it virtually impossible to get a cup of coffee in Paris.

In addition to all this the Continental System only encouraged the British to enter new markets such as Russia and the Orient.

So if Britain were to leave the EU is there really a danger that we would face a new, milder version of the Continental System of Napoleon?

Those europhiles who speak, without any hint of self-awareness of "catastrophe" should Britain go independent seem to be forgetting that if the EU stopped buying our goods, the chances are we'd stop buying theirs as well.

Does even the most ideologically pure eurocrat think this a desirable outcome? Would even the likes of Guy Verhofstadt want a policy of economic Mutually Assured Destruction?

Surely not even the EU, which could be said to be the embodiment of Napoleon's vision for Europe, would be foolish enough to resurrect the greatest failure of the 19th Century's greatest soldier and statesman.