HC Deb 05 April 1878 vol 239 cc733-43

, on rising to inquire, Whether Her Majesty's Government require of Russia that she shall undertake, before the assembling of the Congress, not to withdraw there from before discussion on any proposal which any Power may make at the Congress; and, whether they intend to place their own liberty of withdrawal under a similar limitation? said: Sir, I am very sorry that I did not succeed in making myself intelligible to Her Majesty's Government yesterday in the two Questions which I placed on the Notice Paper, or in the purpose for which they were asked; for it has obliged me, as I consider the purpose material, to enter into some explanation, which, perhaps, it might have been more convenient to the House to hear at the time, if it had been consistent with its Rules. Now, I wish to state explicitly, that the purpose which I have in view in putting these Questions is not controversial, but in every sense a pacific one. ["Oh, oh!"] Yes, I say pacific, notwithstanding the signs and observations which I observe are made upon the other side of the House. There are plenty of matters in the broad field of the Eastern Question upon which there have been, and I fear may yet be, a serious difference of opinion among us; but I am bound to believe that Her Majesty's Government were very anxious that the Congress should meet, and in that respect I believe, also, that anxiety is shared by a very large majority of this House. I, for one, am therefore extremely anxious to know if there be, as there seems to be, a difficulty in the meeting of the Congress; and, if so, what that difficulty exactly is, and if it be of an insurmountable character? I will first explain what I conceive the state of the facts to be. Her Majesty's Government asked the Government of Russia, in order to secure a free and sufficient discussion of the San Stefano Treaty in connection with former Treaties, that every Article in that Treaty between Russia and Turkey should be placed before the Congress, not necessarily for acceptance, but in order that it might be considered what Articles required acceptance or concurrence, and they asked whether the Government of Russia was willing to communicate the entire Treaty to the Conference, in order that the whole Treaty, in its relation to existing Treaties, may be examined and considered by the Congress? It seems to me that it is a purely elementary proposition that the new Treaty must be considered in connection with the old Treaty by the Congress. Then comes the answer of the Russian Government, that it leaves to the other Powers the right and liberty to raise such questions as they may think fit to discuss, and they reserve to themselves the liberty of accepting or not accepting the discussion of those questions? Now, a great deal turns on the meaning of those words. What is meant by accepting or not accepting a discussion of those questions? So far as I can understand, there is a serious difference of interpretation put upon those words by different persons. For my own part, I should think that the words are sufficiently clear, and that accepting a discussion is equivalent to assenting to be present at the discussion, and taking part in it. That is how I understand it; and, if it be so, the question would then arise whether that is a right belonging to Russia and every other Power at the Congress? I have said that I apprehend it is the duty of the Congress to consider the relation of the new Treaty to the old one; but I also apprehend that it is by international usage, which constitutes law, the absolute right of every Power meeting at the Congress to withdraw from the Congress at such time as it shall think fit. That is the right which, as I understand and suppose, is claimed by Her Majesty's Government, and, if so, I think it is a just claim; and it is a question of the utmost importance to know whether they will allow to Russia the right which they so claim for themselves—if they so claim it. That, I confess, appears to me to be a question of principle of very great importance. I am extremely anxious that the Congress should be held, and if it cannot be held on account of the objection taken by Her Majesty's Government, it should be a sound objection, more especially as it was one which was taken upon their own responsibility, and one which I do not find that any other Government has concurred in. Now, Sir, I am desirous of knowing whether that liberty of withdrawal is acknowledged on the part of Russia? It appears to me, I confess, that that liberty to withdraw is perfectly consistent with the doctrine that the Congress must consider the relation of the new Treaty with the old one; because I hold it to be perfectly clear that if Russia should choose to withdraw from the Congress, her withdrawal can in no respect whatever, or in the slightest degree, diminish or abridge the right of the Congress to consider and deal with the subject. If there be matters on which it is necessary that the Treaty of San Stefano should be altered—if there are matters on which it should be necessary, in the judgment of Europe, that force—I put the extremest case—should be used for the purpose of altering the Treaty, whatever the right of Europe might be to arrive at one or the other of these conclusions, it could not in the smallest degree be affected by the withdrawal of Russia from the Congress. If, therefore, the meaning of Her Majesty's Government be that Russia has no right to withdraw the Treaty, or any part of the Treaty, from the judgment of the Congress, that I conceive to be a proposition which it is impossible to demur to; but if it be the proposition that Russia has no right to withdraw herself from the deliberation of the Congress when she pleases, that is a proposition which, I apprehend, would constitute a deviation from the general practice of these Assemblies, and, consequently, I do not see how any arrangement to that effect could be made to the disparagement of Russia, unless similar arrangements were allowed with reference to the other Powers. Nor do I see how such an arrangement could be made, except by the deliberation and determination of all the Powers. What I am, therefore, desirous of knowing is, with respect to this question, whether, in the view of Her Majesty's Government, the demand of Russia that she shall be at liberty to accept or not to accept the discussion of these questions, amounts to a claim to withdraw the Treaty, or any part of the Treaty, from the cognizance of Europe?—that, I confess, does not appear to me to be the meaning of the words. The meaning seems to be that she may withdraw herself; and I do not know how you can deny that every Power has the same right of withdrawal from any and every Congress. It will be a matter of great satisfaction, indeed, to me, if I find that that is all that is intended by my right hon. Friend and the Government upon the point. I, for one, am most desirous to agree that his meaning is, that the Government would consent to nothing which shall in the slightest degree recognize the right of Russia to abridge the title of the assembled Powers to discuss any of the Articles of the Treaty which they may please. To that extent I am prepared to go. If I am asked to say that Russia is to come under an engagement to remain in the Congress during a discussion which appears almost to imply that the desired result is open to modification, though there might be a case in which Russia might concede that, yet it might be she might think that her honour did not allow a modification, and that she must be the guardian of her own honour. I do not see how an arrangement of that kind could be made except by common consent. Of course, I need hardly say that I conceive the broadest distinction must be drawn between the possession of a certain discretion, and the manner in which that discretion may be used. We have had placed before us, I think now for nearly a week, upon anonymous, but not unimportant, testimony, and for a day upon higher and responsible testimony, a statement that it is the intention of Russia to refuse her assent to any discussion upon the question of her abstraction of a portion of Bessarabia from Roumania. Well, for my part, I cannot conceive a more unhappy or deplorable resolution than such a resolution, if it has been taken. I think it would be entirely premature at this moment, and very presumptive on my part, to go further, and say what I think might be the rights of Europe, or what I think might be the possible disposition of Europe in regard to such a question; but the House, I think, will agree with me in drawing a distinction between the question in what way such a discretion is to be used, and the possession of that discretion. I would illustrate what I mean by saying that I can conceive cases in which it would be right, either for the Government of Russia or the Government of Great Britain to refuse to take any part in discussions which might be raised at the Congress. It is quite possible that at the Congress there might be questions raised as to the little territory of Montenegro. Those discussions, without doubt, would be, I should presume, entirely admissible, so far as they regarded the particular conditions under which Montenegro is to exist, whether its territory is to reach to the Oyana River, and what particular points it is to include in the direction of Nicsics or any other direction. But there is a provision in the Treaty that Montenegro shall be independent—the acknowledgment of that independence de jure, which was tolerably well established de facto by the gallant fighting of 400 years, has been obtained by Russia from Turkey. As far as I can understand the circumstances, however, and what constitutes honour, if I could put myself for a moment in the position of Russia, nothing in the world would induce me, after having obtained that acknowledgment from Turkey, and after the engagement I had contracted with Montenegro—indeed, I cannot conceive how I could be otherwise than bound in honour to maintain it, and to give it effect, and to have nothing whatever to do with impairing it. Consequently, I can conceive that Russia might be of opinion that for her to pretend to take part in a discussion whether Montenegro should be independent or not would be a mockery and a deceit practised upon the other Powers, she having in her mind all the time a full and an inflexible determination that, so far as she was concerned, that independence would not be impaired. It appears to me that a Power under such circumstances would be entirely warranted in withdrawing altogether from such a discussion, and would be absolutely bound in honour to tell the Powers assembled at the Congress of the inflexible and immovable determination which it had formed. But I do not say that that would in the slightest degree affect the title of the other Powers of Europe to consider and discuss as to the independence of Montenegro. I think that if they were to deal with it, they would commit a most deplorable error, entirely to their dishonour and discredit; but that is an entirely different matter, and their fight under the Treaty to deal with it would not be made one whit the less or one whit the greater by the withdrawal or the presence of Russia. I have said, also, that I can conceive a case in which a similar course might be incumbent upon the British Government represented at such a Congress, There is a provision in the Treaty of San Stefano that the Congress shall make arrangements with regard to the passage of vessels of war through the Straits. Supposing it were proposed at the Congress, that the Congress should make over to Russia, jointly with Turkey, the regulation of the passage of vessels of war through the Straits, I conceive it to be very possible, and, indeed, not improbable, that the British Government would entirely decline to enter into that discussion. As far as I can understand, their public duty would be not to entertain such a proposition; and, whether they were present at the discussion or whether they were not present, they could not accept such a discussion; and it would be their absolute duty not to waste words upon the subject, or bandy arguments this way or that, but to let it be known that such an arrangement as a surrender of the control of the Straits by Europe to the two Powers, Russia and Turkey, was an arrangement to which they could be no party. So far, it seems to me, that in such a case, the British Government could not accept the discussion; but, at the same time, the rights of other Powers to enter into such a discussion, whatever they might be, would not be in the slightest degree affected by the withdrawal of Great Britain from that discussion. Therefore, I am desirous to know, whether by that liberty of accepting these discussions, or not accepting them, the Government understand Russia to claim the right of withdrawing them from the cognizance of the assembled Powers? for this point appears to me to be a point lost in great obscurity. I greatly doubt whether such can be the meaning of the words; and, at the same time, I think that almost all who hear me must be of opinion that it is highly desirable that the meaning of the words should be completely revealed and understood. I hope I may assume that, whether that be so or not, Her Majesty's Government recognize this—that all Sovereign Powers attending a Congress must attend it with equality of rights and privileges. It is evident that Russia takes her ground, in part, upon the allegation that the equality of her rights is threatened, because I find in the despatch these words— The same liberty which, she does not dispute to others Russia claims for herself. Now, it would be to restrict her, if alone among all the Powers, Russia contracted a preliminary obligation. She appears, therefore, to think that there is something intended to be taken away from her of that liberty which is enjoyed by the other Powers, and it certainly would be very satisfactory to me to hear from Her Majesty's Government that they admitted frankly that all Powers met for such a purpose, if they are to meet usefully, must meet honourably, and that to meet honourably, and without want of self-respect, they must meet with equal rights and equal privileges. I think the knowledge that such is the view of the Government would be a knowledge that might be possibly very useful in the present state of affairs. I can conceive that the Government might take another view, and not consider that it would be desirable that all discussions whatever should be permitted, and that no Power should exercise its liberty of withdrawal except after hearing the discussion. I can conceive that to be possible—I know not whether it is so or not—but I would venture to observe that if that is the view of Her Majesty's Government, the point is raised in the Question which I propose to put. If there is to be that limitation of the liberty of withdrawal I therein state, what I should hope to be the view of Her Majesty's Government is that the limitation must apply to all alike; and, even then, I would venture to add a single observation—that such a limitation of the usual privileges exercised at a Congress could hardly be arranged between two Powers in separate correspondence. If they bound themselves to one another, they could bind nobody else. They could not determine the course to be taken at the Congress by any other Power whatever; and, moreover, they would be entirely departing from the precedent which has been followed on other occasions, especially on the great occasion of the Congress at Vienna—they would be departing from the usage which it appears to me obvious good sense recommends—namely, that all these matters should be regulated by the Congress itself, which alone can lay down its own proper rules of proceeding. To that point, Sir, I was desirous to advert in the second Question which I had upon the Paper yesterday. Her Majesty's Government received an evidently well-intentioned, and, I confess, as I thought, a very wise, proposition from the German Government, that in some way or other, I care not what, the Powers should come together to get over this difficulty. For, when we consider what Congresses are, that they are at present the only instruments that can give a hope to mankind of diminishing the occasions of resort to the horrible and barbarous remedies of war—to employ anything less than the utmost zeal and care in an endeavour to avoid any dangers or difficulties which might bring the project for a European Congress to shipwreck I can hardly conceive to be possible, I hope that our conduct in this matter will be such as to show that no charge of that kind can apply to us. I am extremely anxious to see whether or not there is ground for an agreement as to the discussions of the Congress, and I am anxious also that the extravagant and ambiguous claim which has been made by Russia—such as I should conceive to be any claim by Russia to restrict the liberty which the other Powers would enjoy of discussing any of the questions which may arise on the Treaty if they see fit—I am anxious that that fact should be clearly and distinctly known, and that the blame should be laid at the doors of those to whom it belongs. I confess I am also anxious to learn from Her Majesty's Government—what I assume must be their feeling—that they frankly admit, what is not stated in this Correspondence, the principle of equality amongst the Powers. And I should further venture to entertain the expectation and the earnest wish that there may be a disposition to favour a principle—the more rational and becoming method—of endeavouring by preliminary conversations and communications, not carried on in the curt form of very concise and summary despatches, in which really the propositions and answers are fired off almost like cannon balls, but to employ the principle of explaining and ascertaining each other's meaning. I hope they are disposed to favour that method of communication, and that the answer which has been given to the friendly proposition of Germany is on that account to be considered with respect to the circumstances of the time at which it was given, and not as of an exclusive character, or as one expressing any principle.


Sir, I have listened with the best attention I could to the observations of my right hon. Friend; but I must confess I do not see precisely what advantage he proposes to obtain for the country, or for himself, by raising a discussion of this kind. He stated in the beginning of his remarks that his object was not controversial, but pacific. Now, I wish to say, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, that our wish in all this matter has been not controversial, but pacific. We have been invited, at a very critical period in the history of Europe, to take part at a Congress, which was to settle a very large and important body of questions. We have expressed our entire willingness to enter into that Congress. We have never withdrawn our willingness to enter into that Congress; but, before entering into it, we have desired it to be well understood what the Congress was to be about, and what questions are to be discussed; because it would be undesirable, and would actually frustrate the object, to enter it without any such clear understanding, and, after arriving at the Congress, expecting to discuss the questions for which it was supposed to be assembled, to be told that such-and-such a matter was not before them and could not be completely and freely discussed. All, therefore, that we have done, is to express a wish, and to make it a condition of our entering the Congress, that it should be clearly understood that the whole of the Treaty of San Stefano—the whole of the Treaty between Turkey and Russia—should be submitted to the Congress for its consideration. I understand my right hon. Friend himself to admit that is a perfectly legitimate claim. I understand that he considers that the Congress could not properly do its work unless every article of that Treaty was to be considered in its relation to other Treaties. Well, that is all that we desire to understand, and we have endeavoured to ascertain whether it would be so. We find, from the Correspondence which has passed, that the claim which we have made, that before entering the Congress we should understand that every Article should be submitted to the Congress, is a claim which the Government of Russia is not willing to admit. That is the whole position; and I really think that we should be not only losing time, but actually endangering the settlement of these questions, if I were to attempt to follow my right hon. Friend into the discussion which he has raised. It is, no doubt, a very interesting discussion, as to the precise signification and weight of certain terms—for instance, whether we should take the word "withdraw" as a transitive verb, meaning to withdraw the Treaty, or as an intransitive verb, meaning to withdraw ourselves—whether we are to understand that one Power proposes to discuss something which another Power has refused to discuss or wether we are to discuss first and withdraw afterwards. These are all questions which, no doubt, are scholastically interesting; but I think at the present moment, and with a practical view, we are better consulting the interests of the country and the settlement of these questions by taking the simple line which we have taken, and which we still adhere to, that we are ready to enter the Congress if we are to understand that the whole of the Treaty is to be submitted to it. I really do not know, if I were to speak for an hour, that I could say anything more to the purpose.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Committee deferred till Monday next.