HC Deb 03 April 1936 vol 310 cc2303-8
Mr. ATTLEE (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he can make a statement with regard to any further communications he may have had with the Belgian, French or German Governments?


I am glad to have this opportunity of giving the House some information with regard to the events of the past few days. These events have fallen into two categories. The first relates to the communication which was made to His Majesty's Government by the German Government on 1st April. The second relates to communications which have passed between His Majesty's Government and the French and Belgian Governments arising out of the White Paper of 19th March.

I will first deal with the communication of the German Government. On 1st April Herr von Ribbentrop visited the Foreign Office, and had an interview with the Lord Privy Seal and myself, at which he presented the document of the German Government, which has now been published in the press. Yesterday I had a further conversation with the German representative. At this conversation, I told Herr von Ribbentrop that while His Majesty's Government had only had time for a preliminary examination of Herr Hitler's latest proposals, we regarded them as most important and as deserving of careful study, which we now intended to give them. The immediate question which confronted His Majesty's Government was what should be the next step. It was clear that we would have now to get into communication with other Governments. That would take a little time, and indeed His Majesty's Government thought a pause at this moment would be valuable.

I emphasised to Herr von Ribbentrop that our object in the present difficult situation was the same as it had been from the first: to seek to get negotiations going to bring about a final settlement. I asked Hen von Ribbentrop to assure the German Chancellor that His Majesty's Government would spare no effort to that end. At the same time I felt bound to point out to him that in respect of the interim period, for which His Majesty's Government had particularly appealed for a contribution, the 'German Government had not been able to meet us. The difficulty, therefore, of creating that sense of confidence in Europe which was an essential condition of successful negotiation still remained.

This brings me to a matter which has been engaging the particular attention of His Majesty's Government during the last few days. The House will remember that in my statement in the Debate on 26th March I said that it was our main task in these difficult times to create an atmosphere of confidence in which negotiations for a general settlement could take place. As was then explained, His Majesty's Government are ready to take two particular steps with this object. One step is to give to the French and Belgian Governments certain undertakings, to come into effect in the event of the ultimate failure of the effort of conciliation which we hope to achieve. These undertakings are contained in the draft letter which appeared on page 7 of the White Paper of 19th March. The other step decided on by His Majesty's Government was to reaffirm their existing obligations to France and Belgium under the Treaty of Locarno and to express their willingness that, pending the negotiations, there should be conversations between the staffs of the three countries for the purpose of those obligations. It must be emphasized that these conversations, which will relate only to the intermediate per oil pending negotia- tions, will be of a purely technical character and will not increase our political obligations.

I accordingly handed yesterday to both the French and the Belgian Ambassadors a letter in the terms set out on page 7 of the White Paper of 19th March, subject to certain necessary modifications of a formal nature. I accompanied each of these letters with a further communication, the terms of which I will read to the House: I have the honour to hand herewith to Your Excellency the letter contemplated in the Text of Proposals drawn up on 19th March by the Representatives of Belgium, France, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and Italy. Your Excellency will appreciate that the delivery of this letter in no way implies that in the view of His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, the effort of concilation referred to in this letter has failed. As you are aware we have to-day received from the German Government certain proposals which we have communicated to your Government and to which we are giving our immediate consideration. Meanwhile His Majesty's Government are willing, in accordance with Paragraph III of the Proposals, to instruct their General Staffs forthwith to enter into contact with the French/Belgium General Staffs, with a view to arranging the technical conditions in which the obligations referred to in that paragraph should be carried out in case of unprovoked aggression. On behalf of His Majesty's Government I have the honour to state that it is understood that this contact between the General Staffs cannot give rise in respect of either Government to any political undertaking, nor to any obligation regarding the organisation of national defence. I shall be glad to have Your Excellency's confirmation that this is likewise the understanding of your Government. His Majesty's Government propose that the conversations between the General Staffs of the two countries, necessary for establishing the contacts in question, should be begun in London. I am addressing a similar letter to the French (or Belgian) Ambassador. It will be seen that these communications deal with three separate points. First, I made it clear that the delivery of the letter in no way implies that in the view of His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom the effort of conciliation referred to in this letter has failed. In that connection honourable Members will see that I drew attention to the latest proposals of the German Government, which had just been received. Secondly, the two Ambassadors were informed that His Majesty's Government were willing forthwith to authorise the Staff conversations provided for in Paragraph III of the White Paper of 19th March, to which I have just referred. Thirdly, I placed on record the understanding that this contact between the General Staffs cannot give rise in respect of either Government to any political undertaking, nor to any obligation regarding the organisation of national defence. The House will remember that in my speech on 26th March an undertaking was given that this should be the understanding upon which these conversations should take place, and His Majesty's Government have now received from the French and Belgian Ambassadors confirmation that this is also the understanding of their respective Governments.

The House will also notice that it was in London that we proposed that the General Staffs should meet. To this also the French and Belgian Governments have agreed. No date has yet been fixed for this meeting, but it will take place as soon as the necessary arrangement can be made.

The correspondence to which I have referred will be available in the vote office as a White Paper by 12 o'clock.

I must repeat that His Majesty's Government had made up their mind some time ago that they, for their part, must make their contribution towards that restoration of confidence which is an essential condition of successful negotiation. This was the main object of His Majesty's Government in deciding on Staff conversations with France and Belgium. These conversations, in the view of His Majesty's Government, cannot be considered as in any way prejudicing the settlement which we all wish to realise.


In view of the fact that it is now suggested that there may be a pause and that the efforts at conciliation, which we all hope will succeed, may take some time, could not His Majesty's Government reinforce the sense of security by bringing in all the League Powers, and not merely the Locarno Powers? The point I would put to the right hon. Gentleman is this. What is contemplated is the possible danger of an act of aggression. An act of aggression brings in all the signatories of the Covenant. Is it not desirable to make the basis of security as broad as possible?


I feel a very great deal of sympathy with the point of view which the right hon. Gentleman has just put and, for my part, I should welcome any such procedure if it could be generally agreed upon.


I should like to ask the Foreign Secretary one question arising out of what he has stated with regard to the military discussions. Can he assure the House and the country at this stage that it is not contemplated to put any of these military plans into operation, in the unfortunate event of a failure of these negotiations, unless there is an unprovoked attack by Germany—by the German forces—upon Belgian and French soil, that is, an actual invasion of either France or Belgium?


Yes, Sir.


May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, for the guidance of the House, whether the debate on Monday on the setting up of the Committee of Supply, will not, in fact, lay open all those topics which would he within the scope of a debate on the Second Reading of the Consolidated Fund Bill?


For the guidance of the House I should say that the scope of the debate on Monday will not be as wide as the right lion. Gentleman suggests. Hon. Members will recall that the question on Wednesday last was that of going into Committee of Supply on the Civil Estimates. Anything arising out of the Civil Estimates would, therefore, be in order on Monday. For instance, questions concerning the Foreign Office would be in order; but questions concerning the Service Estimates and the Defence Forces would not be in order on that occasion.


I am very much obliged to you, Sir.


May I ask whether His Majesty's Governments in the Dominions have taken any part, either in these negotiations or in these staff conversations?


His Majesty's Governments in the Dominions are not signatories of the Locarno Treaty, but of course they are being kept in the closest touch with every phase of these negotiations.


Is not that exactly a reason why the basis should be broadened, so as to bring in all the League Powers? Otherwise, you leave Great Britain standing apart from the rest of the British Commonwealth of Nations.


Yes Sir, I agree. I am anxious that the basis should be broadened, but the House must appreciate the fact that the origin of all this was the denunciation of the Locarno Treaty,


When may we expect a further report as to w hat is taking place in these talks?


I cannot say at the moment.


May I ask whether Italy, as our co-guarantor, is also addressing communications to the French and Belgian Governments similar to those to which the right lion. Gentleman has referred?


I have no information on that point. I can only answer for His Majesty's Government.