HC Deb 13 July 1860 vol 159 cc1852-8

I rise, Sir, to ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Whether all the Eight Powers, as well as Switzerland and Sardinia, have consented to take part in the proposed Conference on the subject of the 92nd Article of the Definitive Act of Vienna, and whether there is any preliminary understanding between the Powers as to the basis on which the Conference will take place? A very few words will suffice to explain the point I am anxious to bring under the notice of the House. Every one knows that in the contemplation of the eventuality of war in which either France or Austria should be engaged it was provided by the 92nd Article of the Treaty of Vienna that Switzerland in any such case should remain neuter, and that the two provinces of which we have heard so much—Chablais and Faucigny—should share that neutrality. For that purpose they were placed under the protection of Sardinia. The difficulty which has now been occasioned arises thus:—The King of Sardinia has professed to cede to the Emperor of the French the provinces of Chablais and Faucigny, in other words, he has professed to cede to the French Emperor the provinces which formed the neutralized boundary of Switzerland. It happens also that Switzerland was vitally injured by this arrangement, because whereas Switzerland formerly had an admirable frontier for the Canton of Geneva as the result of the Treaty of Turin, she finds herself surrounded on all sides but one by a great military empire, and ceases to be defensible. True, such defence as is given by a European guarantee still remains, but experience has shown that protection by diplomatic arrangement is of little avail unless it be combined with a strong military frontier and a warlike people. I have great pleasure in admitting that the second article of the Treaty of Turin acknowledges in distinct terms and in the fairest way the extent to which the contemplated arrangement was questionable on the part of the Powers of Europe, and also by Switzerland; accordingly the two articles of the treaty provide that France should come to an understanding with Europe generally and Switzerland. Now, Switzerland being the State aggrieved by the arrangement made between these two Powers, desired to appeal to Europe; and it did so happen that the treaty arrangements made in 1814 and 1815 at Aix-la-Chapelle constituted an apt tribunal to which an appeal in such a case might be addressed—for that treaty provided that in the event of either party feeling aggrieved a Conference of the Powers was to take place. It is extremely important to bear this in mind because it is this which constitutes the distinction between a Conference in the ordinary sense of the term, and that peculiar Conference to which Switzerland is appealing. It would be extremely anomalous and inconvenient that an ordinary Conference should take place without some antecedent basis as to which there is a probability that the Powers would agree. But this is not a Conference of voluntary Powers, but constitutes what I may truly call a Court of Tribunal, and summoned by Switzerland as one of the Powers which states herself aggrieved, and therefore she is entitled to be present. It seems to me of importance that this Conference should take place, because it is there, and there only, that negotiations can be effectually carried on. It is of the greatest importance that the Swiss Confederation, which from the beginning has shown high spirit, great sagacity, and a firm and unflinching reliance on the great Powers of Europe—it is of great importance that Switzerland, called to negotiate on a matter of vital importance to her, should be able to negotiate without seeming to abandon that reliance she has always shown on the support of the Powers of Europe. Moreover, it is admitted by all, and by none more fairly than by France, that the existing state of things must undergo some alteration in order to be placed in conformity with the public law of Europe; and 'it would be a scandal to Europe if it could be supposed that there was no tribunal competent to decide the question. The most obvious objection to the conference no doubt is the danger that it might seem to give something like a recognition to the transaction appealed against; but I humbly apprehend that the basis on which the Conference will take place will not be the Treaty of Turin; it will be the 92nd Article of the definitive Treaty of 1815, combined with the fact that these provinces have been occupied by the Emperor of the French, and it will not proceed on the assumption that the treaty signed on the 24th of March was definitive. Now, it appears to me that this Conference, if it should succeed, will confer a very great blessing upon Europe; and if it should fail it will in that event also bring about a state of things far more desirable than that which now exists, because it will show, in the most emphatic manner, what will then be the recognized impossibility of placing the Treaty of Turin in conformity with the public law of Europe. I beg now to ask the question.


I have only one or two words to say to the noble Lord before he answers the question of my hon. and learned Friend. I do not wish to enter on the general subject, because I hope before the end of the Session it will be fully gone into. But, as the question of a Conference has now been decided, I only hope the noble Lord and the Powers of Europe, who have given their assent to it, will see that the rights of Switzerland, as a party vitally interested in this question, are fully recognized. Now, France has denied the rights of Switzerland in this matter. Over and over again France has asserted that Switzerland has nothing whatever to do with any arrangement that may be made between France on the one side and Sardinia on the other. But the Powers of Europe—Russia, Prussia, Austria, and England—have decided the contrary; and I must say the despatch of the noble Lord (Lord John Russell), of the 24th of April, which is among the papers laid on the table yesterday, is a most energetic recapitulation of the whole question—it is a most admirable and excellent despatch. I only hope the noble Lord will act up to the sentiments it contains. There is another observation I wish to make; it is this—France has denied that Switzerland has anything to do with this question. France has endeavoured to negotiate directly with Switzerland, but Switzerland very wisely refused to do anything with France apart from the other Powers, Now, France lays very great stress on this—she wishes it to be understood that the invitation or summons to attend the Conference comes from France, and not Switzerland. This is a most important fact—such is not the fact; the fact is perfectly the reverse. The invitation to this special Conference comes from Switzerland, not from France, and has been so recognized by the Powers of Europe. I hope France will not be allowed to take credit to herself for the assembling of this Conference. I have only to add that as France has declined to cede any portion of the neutralized province of Chablais and Faucigny, because she says that universal suffrage has given her those provinces, I can state that the whole operation of that universal suffrage was most false and fallacious. I am authorized to say this—that there are about 30,000 adults capable of exercising the elective franchise in those two provinces; I think that 29,000 voted in favour of France; but only a few weeks before, 12,000, the most important and responsible inhabitants of the very same provinces publicly and without any pressure declared themselves entirely in favour of union with Switzerland. Now, to tell us that you would not admit any diminution of that territory, because universal suffrage has given it to you, is, I say, a most false and fallacious doctrine, and I hope the Powers of Europe will not submit to the degradation of accepting such a position from France.


I have only one or two remarks to make on this occasion. I must say, after reading the despatch of the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) produced yesterday, and to which reference has already been made, I have every confidence in his administration of the foreign affairs of the country. I think we may leave the foreign affairs of England with the utmost confidence in the hands of the noble Lord. [Mr. VINCENT SCULLY: Oh, oh!] That is my opinion. It may not be the opinion of the hon. Member for Cork; but I would rather be wrong with the noble Lord, than right with that hon. Gentleman. There was a very grave statement made last night—a statement unusually grave, because my hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Kinglake)who made it, never speaks on light grounds, and his information has generally been found correct; any statement, therefore, which he makes is entitled to the fullest consideration of the House. My hon. and learned Friend stated that at the last interview which took place between the two Emperors at the conference of Villafranca, the Emperor Napoleon III. made a proposition to the Emperor of Austria to the effect that, on condition that the latter would join the former in an attack on the Rhenish Provinces, Lombardy should be secured to Austria.


The condition was that Austria should acquiesce in that attack.


Well, acquiesce in it. I say that any such statement coming from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bridgwater is worthy of the most serious attention of this House, because he evideutly has means of obtaining information that are not available to other hon. Members. The question I therefore wish to put to the noble Lord is, whether he is aware that such a proposition was ever made? I am unable to judge of how my hon. and learned Friend acquired his knowledge, but he certainly was cognizant of the project for annexing Savoy to France long before it was known to any Member of Her Majesty's Government; and that is one reason why I put this question. I can only suppose that my hon. and learned Friend must have received his information from the Emperor of Austria himself, because I believe no one else but the two Emperors was present at the interview. I should imagine that if any person in this country could give a satisfactory answer to the House on this point it would be the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary. I therefore take the liberty of putting this question to him, at the same time repeating what I said at the outset—namely, that I have full confidence in the noble Lord's judgment in conducting our foreign affairs.


With respect, first, to the questions put to me by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Kinglake) I will state the facts as far as they are within my own knowledge. My hon. and learned Friend seems to suppose that certain Powers have consented to take part in the proposed Conference. Now, the way in which the matter stands is this. The House will have seen from the papers which have been presented that the French Goverment have proposed three different modes for reconciling the 92nd Article of the Treaty of Vienna with the 2nd Article of the Treaty of Turin, and that a Conference is only one of those modes. The French Government, therefore, have not summoned the Conference, and asked the other Powers to attend it, but they proposed it as one of these modes. Her Majesty's Government had no difficulty in immediately saying that they accepted the Conference as the best mode of considering this subject; but it does not appear, as far as we know, that any definitive answer has been given by the other Powers of Europe. We have been told—although, of course, the answer would not come to us, but to the French Government—that Austria and Prussia have both shown some hesitation on the matter; and that, although an unofficial answer went from Russia that she was willing to accept a Conference, yet her answer was not formal or definitive' on the subject. Therefore at present no summonses have gone out from France for the purpose of convening the Conference; and it is not yet certain that the other Powers have assented to that mode. I believe, however, they all say that if a Conference is summoned they will send representatives to it.

With regard to the second question put to me, as to whether any preliminary arrangement has been come to with the Powers respecting the basis of a settlement, the French Government have from the beginning stated that the only practical basis is, that the Powers should endeavour to reconcile the 92nd Article of the Treaty of Vienna with the 2nd Article of the Treaty of Turin, and they assume that that will be thought a proper basis, because it allows every latitude to the other Powers to state their views upon the subject. I imagine no other basis than that can be proposed. As to the observation which has been made more than once in this House, that the French Government proposes to tie down the other Powers beforehand against any arrangement by which any part of Savoy may be separated from France, no attempt has been made to fetter the other Powers on that subject. The French Government, however, say that if such a proposal should be made, they will state their objections to its adoption.

With respect to the revelation made by my hon. and learned Friend last night as to what transpired between the Emperor of the French and the Emperor of Austria at Villafranca, what happened on that occasion can only have taken place between those two Sovereigns. I believe that no other person was present at their interview. We have had various accounts, more or less official, of the general substance of what passed at that interview; but we have not received any intimation that the proposal or suggestion to which my hon. Friend the Member for Liskeard (Mr. Bernal Osborne) alludes, was made. I have, indeed, heard the story in a vague way, but I do not know that there is any authority whatever for it.