Nearly 200 years ago, in September 1812, Napoleon reached the maximum limit of his nominal power when he entered Moscow with his army drawn from right across Europe. His empire covered France, Germany, Poland, Italy, much of Spain (his lieutenants were in the process of driving back an advance by Anglo-Spanish forces that had temporarily liberated Madrid) and now much of Russia, including its Asiatic capital. But he could not hold it; by the year’s end he had been forced to abandon Russia altogether, his army destroyed, and he was completely crushed within a year and a half. For the Russians 1812 had proved a time of incessant retreat, as they avoided battle until just before Moscow (at Borodino), where they lost and were forced to abandon Moscow without a fight, but ultimately a year of triumph.
Is this a fair metaphor for the British Eurosceptics in their moment of victory at the British veto at last week’s EU summit? Certainly their triumphalism is unbearable. Bill Cash was described by one of our outraged local Lib Dem members as “the cat that got the cream.” This follows one long process of retreat by British Europhiles as they conceded the political initiative to the sceptics, practically without a fight, time and again.
But the initial reaction of leading Lib Dems was strangely sanguine. Nick Clegg was initially quite supportive of David Cameron. On Friday night the deputy parliamentary leader, Simon Hughes, painted a positive picture to party members at a social event which I was attending. Mr Clegg has changed his tune today, of course. Whether that is because of the sceptics’ reaction, or because further details of what actually happened at the summit have emerged (for a flavour of this read the Economist’s Bagehot blog) I cannot say.
But the initial relief at the summit result shown by Mr Hughes has some logic behind it. A treaty would have required ratification by the UK parliament, and demand for a referendum. This sort of battle plays to the sceptics’ strengths – strong support by the press and a widespread wariness of extra EU power. A referendum on a treaty change is the battle the europhiles least want to fight. The sceptics can deploy a “have your cake and eat it” argument for a no vote – a vote not against the Union as such, but to protest against “Brussels”. There will be no such battles now. If there is a referendum it will be about whether we stay in the EU at all.
Instead the sceptics’ position might start to come under the sort of scrutiny that it has hitherto lacked, and be shown to be no more tenable than Napoleon’s hold on Moscow. The summit has started that exposure process. The sceptics’ armchair negotiators have said that we can use the British veto to negotiate major concessions, the “repatriation of powers”; but Mr Cameron proved unable to do this. It has also been said that we were not isolated in the EU, and we could lead a gang of pro-market non-Euro members. This against has been shown to be a hollow idea, as Germany has greater influence over these potential allies than we do. Indeed a horrible spectre emerges, that the British blocking tactics make many of the EU’s institutions irrelevant while the other countries set up alternatives over which the British have no say. The sceptics often complain about Britain shackling its fortunes to a corpse – but the corpse could be the official EU structures, rather than the European project itself…and that would be an outcome entirely of our own making.
And further eurosceptic fantasies will soon be exposed. Their aim is to set up some sort of free-rider relationship to the Union, where British products enjoy free access without to European markets without our businesses having to comply with those pesky social regulations. Some think the country can do this within the EU, using opt-outs, others that it can be done outside it, in the European Economic area (like Norway, Iceland and Switzerland). But this requires the other 26 countries to agree with it. All of them. Why should they?
Just as the Eurozone optimists are having their ideas tested to destruction in a gruelling series of financial crises, so the eurosceptics might find themselves on the wrong side of the argument. In both cases it is clear that the only tolerable escape route involves further European integration, not less. Perhaps, like Napoleon’s collapse in 1812, it will happen quicker than we think.