HC Deb 28 March 1862 vol 166 cc236-40

said, he would beg to ask the First Lord of the Treasury, If he can inform the House why the negotiation of a Commercial Treaty with Belgium, for the purpose of securing that Belgium shall no longer impose differential duties on British goods, has been suspended? He observed that the answer which had been given to the question he put the other night by the hon. Member the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, had created so much disappointment in commercial circles, and especially amongst the manufacturers of the north of England, that it was most desirable to obtain some information as to the causes which had led to the suspension of the negotiation. For many years this country had been placed by Belgium in a worse position, in respect to commercial relations, than any other nation of importance. It was true that many years ago this country entered into a commercial treaty with Belgium, containing a favoured nation clause, but this clause was nullified by the provision that it was only to come into effect if there was no special treaty with other countries. Now, the fact was that the Belgian Government had made special treaties with almost every other country but England, thereby putting us in a most disadvantageous position. In point of fact, he might state that she had made special treaties with sixteen different countries, including Russia, Naples, the United States, and several smaller States. A treaty which was concluded last year between Belgium and France placed us in a still worse position, France having had an advantage over us before, obtained a still greater now; and in consequence of this representations had been made on several occasions to the noble Lord at the head of the Foreign Office, who, in his reply, had always stated that he was in communication with the Belgian Government, and he had no doubt that a treaty would shortly be concluded. He wished to be informed whether the Belgian Government had attached any condition to the granting of a treaty which should include a most favoured nation clause in our favour. He did not for a moment propose that any attempt should be made to force free trade notions upon Belgium, for that country had a perfect right to uphold a system of protection if she pleased. He considered it, however, ungrateful of Belgium to place England, who had done so much to secure independence for her, in a worse position than other countries. A perssistence in such a course of conduct could not but be viewed with regret, and could not fail to give great dissatisfaction here. He hoped, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman would be able to give some explanation of the causes which had led to the suspension of the negotiations for a treaty.


said, that the commercial community were under the greatest obligation to the hon. Gentleman for bringing that subject forward; for it was not merely a question of free trade, but one affecting the material interests of the country. He could quite confirm the statement of his hon. Friend relative to the answers which chambers of commerce had received from Government as to the probability of a speedy and favourable termination to the negotiations. He thought that the Government of this country ought to make an energetic appeal to the Belgian Government upon the subject.


said, that he considered it his duty, as representing a large manufacturing town, to express how very strongly all the manufacturers in the North of England felt upon this subject. A distinct hope had been held out to the country last session by the noble Lord at the head of the Government, and by the noble Earl the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, that the negotiations between this country and Belgium for a commercial treaty would be brought to a successful termination. It was now stated that these negotiations had been suspended. He sincerely hoped that the hon. Gentleman the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs would be able to allay the feeling of disappointment which now existed.


said, that he could confirm the statements of the hon. Gentleman as to the dissatisfaction which existed on this subject throughout the manufacturing districts of the country. He hoped the Government would not cease to press this matter upon the attention of the Belgian Government.


said, that Her Majesty's Government were fully alive to the great importance of the subject. He was not surprised that the hon. Member for Bradford (Mr. W. E. Forster) should have put his question, and that he and other hon. Members representing manufacturing districts were much disappointed at the answer with respect to the Belgian Treaty which he had felt it his duty to give the other evening. It was quite true that last Session Her Majesty's Ministers were, he might say, under the conviction that the Belgian Government were about to enter into a commercial treaty with this country, which was to contain the most favoured nation clause, and to place England upon the same footing as France and other nations with which Belgium had concluded treaties of commerce. The Belgian Government stated as a reason for not concluding the Treaty last year, that the Belgian Chambers had risen before it was possible to submit it to their approval. To the surprise of Her Majesty's Government, the Government of Belgium in the autumn of last year declared for the first time their unwillingness to enter into a treaty of commerce with this country without a special condition—the capitalization of the Scheldt dues—being attached thereto. The House was aware that after the separation of Holland and Belgium, the former country claimed the right—which was conceded to her by the Powers of Europe—of raising duties on foreign vessels navigating the Scheldt. It was stipulated that those duties should amount to a florin and a half per ton. The Belgian Government, fearing that such a restriction on shipping would greatly interfere with the trade of Antwerp, proposed to the Government of the Netherlands to pay the duty levied on foreign vessels themselves, and up to the present time that duty had been paid by them to an agent of the Netherlands Government at Antwerp. The consequence was, that all foreign shipping was exempt from the Scheldt dues. When the Belgian Government entered last year into a treaty of commerce with Prance, they also concluded one of navigation, and by an article of that treaty French vessels were exempted from the payment of the Scheldt dues so long as those dues were not paid by Belgian vessels. In the autumn the Belgian Government intimated, that if Her Majesty's Government were not willing to capitalize the Scheldt dues, they could not give them a treaty of commerce. Upon principle Her Majesty's Government declined to buy, as it were, a treaty of commerce with Belgium, because the capitalization of the Scheldt dues involved the payment of a large sum of money on the part of this country, our vessels forming the larger portion of the shipping in the Scheldt. Her Majesty's Government were willing, without reference to the Treaty, to take the question of the capitalization of the Scheldt dues into consideration; but they refused to bind themselves to any particular basis for the capitalization of those dues, and, in fact, declined to give any pledge on the subject. There were many important considerations involved in the question. The fact that the Scheldt dues were paid by the Belgian Government had greatly in creased the commerce in that river, and Her Majesty's Government could not undertake to capitalize those dues without first ascertaining, after the most careful consideration, what part of them would be actually paid by British vessels if they were actually levied upon such vessels. Hitherto their payment by Belgium had been of great advantage to her, and had greatly increased the trade of Antwerp. We could not pay for that which had been more advantageous to Belgium than to this country. They, therefore, had declined to accept the proposition of the Belgian Government; but, at the same time, they had intimated their willingness, if a treaty of commerce should be entered into with this country—and no one could doubt that we were entitled to such a treaty—to take the question of the capitalization of the Scheldt dues into consideration. When he replied to a question of the hon. Member for Bradford the other night, he was compelled to state, what was then the fact, that negotiations had been "suspended." He trusted he might now use a milder word. There had been a pause in the negotiations, but Her Majesty's Government entertained, the hope that the Belgian Government would reconsider its determination, and would not act so ungraciously towards this country—which had been of essential service to Belgium—as to refuse to her what she had granted, not only to France, Russia, and other great Powers, but also to Turkey, Morocco, and even to Naples. Under these circumstances, he trusted the negotiations would be speedily resumed.

Motion agreed to.

House in Committee.

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