HC Deb 20 March 1936 vol 310 cc841-9

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]

3.25 p.m.


I must first thank all parties in the House for the forbearance that they have shown since I last made a statement here on Monday, 9th March. That forbearance, I can assure hon. Members, has been a real help to us in the negotiations and in the work upon which we have been engaged. I recognise, however, that this willingness to refrain from pressing the representa- tives of His Majesty's Government for information during an admittedly very difficult negotiation has not lessened the anxiety with which the whole House views the present situation, and it is for that reason that I am taking the very first opportunity to give the House as much information as I can. Happily I am now in a position to do more than make an interim statement. I am able to announce that agreement has been reached between the representatives of France, Belgium, Italy and ourselves on proposals to be submitted to our respective governments.

I will, with the permission of the House, now proceed to give an account of the course of events since I last made my statement to the House on 9th March. On that same afternoon, the House may perhaps recall, my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal and I proceeded to Paris on our way to Geneva for the purpose of holding conversations preliminary to the meeting of the Council of the League. The full difficulties of the situation were already apparent, and, after the preliminary discussion in Paris, it became evident that further consultation with our colleagues in the Government was necessary. In these circumstances, we suggested that convenience and expedition would be best served if not only the meeting of the four Powers signatory to the Locarno Treaties, but also the impending meeting of the League Council, were held here in London. This proposal was readily accepted by all those concerned, and the first meeting in London between the four Locarno Powers was accordingly held on Thursday, 12th March. The House will realise that from the start two wholly separate but cognate sets of discussions have been taking place in London, one between the Locarno Powers and the other before the Council.

The immediate task of the Council was a relatively simple one. It was called upon to pronounce a finding on the question whether the action of the German Government in sending troops into the demilitarised zone on 7th March constituted a unilateral repudiation of its Treaty obligations. The course of the Council proceedings has been made public from day to day, and the House will be already aware that on 19th March this question was answered affirmatively and unanimously by the Council. A dissent- ing vote was recorded by the German representative, and it may be well if I here say something of the events which preceded his arrival in London. As soon as the appeal of the French and Belgian Governments with regard to Germany's violation of the Treaty of Locarno was received by the League, the Secretary-General sent an intimation of the date, at which the Council would meet to consider this question, to the members of the League and also to the German Government. To this intimation no reply was received from the German Government. It was, however, thought highly desirable that Germany should be represented at these grave deliberations, and have an opportunity of stating her case on equal terms before a vote was taken. On this basis a further definite invitation was sent, and I was glad to be able to second this invitation both to the German Ambassador here in London and through His Majesty's Ambassador in Berlin. This invitation the German Government accepted and the German Delegation reached London on 18th March. The session of the Council in London has not been terminated by the decision reached yesterday. It is anticipated that a further meeting will be held on Monday, and I may add that the Committee of Thirteen may meet to-morrow to consider the replies of the two parties in the Italo-Abyssinian dispute.

I will now give the House some account of the discussions between the Locarno Powers. These, as the House will readily understand, have been both long and complicated, and have filled to overflowing the brief time at our disposal. On our side the discussions have been carried on, in the main, by the Lord President of the Council, the Lord Privy Seal, the Chancellor of the Exchequer And myself. It was clear from the outset that the occupation of the demilitarised zone by German troops presented a fait accompli which made the opening of negotiations with Germany very difficult. It was strongly held that negotiations could not begin until this breach of international law had been in some measure restored. Immediately on my return from Paris, therefore, I suggested to the German Government that they should make a contribution to ease the situation created by their action. The suggestion was, briefly, that pending negotiations they should withdraw troops in sufficient number to warrant their description of the re-occupation as symbolic, and that, similarly, they should abstain from the construction of fortifications. Though the German Chancellor publicly expressed his willingness not further to increase the number of troops sent in, this was not sufficient to enable much progress to be made. The discussions between the four Locarno Powers which were resumed on 12th March, were most actively pursued thereafter. The time at our disposal in these crowded days was limited, and the discussions have had to be carried on at all hours of the day and into the small hours of the morning. I should like here to pay, if I may, a warm tribute to the energy, patience and equanimity of the representatives of our fellow-signatories.

I will now give the House some particulars of the proposals which have resulted from these conversations. These proposals contain considerable detail, and I can, therefore, only now give a very general summary. The full text will be available in the Vote Office when I sit down. The main objective of His Majesty's Government is to restore confidence in international law and create conditions in which an effort may be made to rebuild European stability. That has been our objective throughout these days. The restoration of confidence is no easy task, for it has been rudely shaken. Our main difficulty therefore has been to bridge the gap in time which will be necessary to enable negotiations for the re-establishment of a system of security in Europe to be effectually undertaken and carried to a conclusion.

During the interim period which I have described, it is proposed that Germany should he invited to refer to the Permanent Court of International Justice at The Hague her case as to the incompatibility between the Franco-Soviet Pact and the Treaty of Locarno. It is also proposed, with the assent of the Governments concerned, that an international force including detachments from the armies of the guarantor Powers should be stationed in a narrow zone to the East of the frontier, between Germany and France and Germany and Belgium. It is also proposed that Germany should undertake, during this interim period, not to reinforce the troops which have already been sent into the demilitarised zone, and not to modify the situation of the para-military forces which are stationed there. Germany is also asked not to proceed with fortifications there during this interim period, while the French and Belgian Governments, for their part, would undertake during the same period not td send further troops into the zone adjoining their frontiers with Germany. For our part, in addition to undertaking to supply detachments to an international force, we are making a contribution to the restoration of confidence by joining in a reaffirmation of our Locarno obligations, and by arranging for contacts between the general staffs of the guarantor Powers and those of France and Belgium. I need hardly say that the sole object of these conversations would be to meet the possibility of any unprovoked aggression.

It is proposed to submit to the Council of the League of Nations certain resolutions reaffirming, on the lines of the Resolution adopted by the Council of the League a year ago, after the Stresa meeting, the principle of scrupulous respect for Treaty obligations, proposing the reference to the Permanent Court of International Justice which I have just mentioned and taking note of the reaffirmation which Belgium, France, Italy and ourselves propose to make of their rights and obligations under the Treaty of Locarno. The Council would also take note of the contemplated measures to which I have referred, and which relate to the interim period. The House will, I venture to think, consider that these proposed arrangements to create a sense of security during the period of negotiations are fair and reasonable, and indicate the spirit in which the question has been approached by the French and Belgian Governments. Germany is asked to make certain contributions but, in the situation which has been created by the German re-occupation of the demilitarised zone, I am sure the House will feel that it is very reasonable to ask Germany to make contributions. More particularly is this so in the light of the substantial contributions which resulted from the restraint and moderation displayed by the French and Belgian Governments. If the House will appreciate the position of those Governments when we first met in Paris, and then compare that with the text of the White Paper, they will appreciate how substantial that contribution has been.

As regards the actual negotiations, what is proposed is that in the first instance the five signatories of Locarno should enter into negotiations on the basis, first, of several of the proposals, made in the German Memorandum of 7th March; secondly, of the revision of the status of the Rhineland; and, thirdly, of the drawing up of mutual assistance pacts open to all the signatories of the Treaty of Locarno.

The next stage of negotiation is a World Conference to be held under the auspices of the League of Nations, to consider, in addition to certain other proposals made by the German Chancellor, the questions of security and the limitation of armaments and of economic relations between the nations. Finally, since it is unfortunately necessary, however reluctant we may be to do so, to envisage the possibility of the failure of the proposed negotiations which I have described to the House, it is proposed that His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom and the Government of Italy should address letters to the Governments of France and of Belgium indicating what their position in that event would be. The House will find the terms of these proposed letters in the White Paper.

Such are the proposals which, after strenuous negotiations, have been referred to our respective Governments. I hope that the House will agree that they are not ill-designed to meet the present grave emergency. So far as His Majesty's Government are concerned, we are prepared to accept these proposals, and it is our most earnest hope that the German Government will also look on them in this light. The German Government have stressed their wish for a relaxation of that tension which can only lead to disaster. It is now for them to show what contributions they are willing to make to this end. Last night I asked Herr von Ribbentrop, the German representative, to come and see me, when I gave him a brief outline of these proposals. His Excellency at once stated that he would take no decision until he had seen the text as a whole, and completely reserved the position of his Government. Late last night I sent to Herr von Ribbentrop the text as soon as it had been approved by the Cabinet.

Such is the present position as it has emerged as a result a this week's intensive efforts. I would stress that in the conversations between the Locarno Powers which have taken place, the object of His Majesty's Government has been two-fold throughout. We have sought to meet the peril—it has been a very real peril—of an immediate and gravely critical international situation, and we have sought to create an opportunity for the settlement of Western Europe on a firm and enduring four dation.—[An HON. MEMBER: "And also in Eastern Europe?"]—In both.—[Interruption.]—In the first instance, but not exclusively. In both these arduous tasks we have, we believe, made important progress in the last few days. I can assure the House that the Government will persist without any relaxation in their endeavours.

3.45 p.m.


The House will have listened with the deepest interest to the statement made by the Foreign Secretary. I think it has been the endeavour of all of us not to embarrass him and his colleagues, during this very difficult time, in his most responsible task. It is quite clear that these matters cannot be fully debated this afternoon, but an opportunity for discussion will perhaps arise next week. I would like just to make one or two points. In the first place I should like to say how much we recognise the statesmanlike moderation of both France and Belgium; and, secondly, I would like to emphasise the importance we attach to going forward to a world conference to deal with the widest possible issues. I take it that the right hon. Gentleman did not intend to suggest that peace would be secured merely by a western settlement, but that he would agree that we must try to secure the peace of all Europe and of the whole world; and I would specially welcome the reference to the fact that discussions are to proceed also on the wide economic causes which, we hold, lie at the back of this unrest. I should like to ask two questions. The first is whether the right hon. Gentleman would state a little more fully the contents of the letters which, he stated, are to be sent by His Majesty's Government and the Italian Government to France and Belgium; and the second is, whether he has as yet any indication of the attitude of the German Government to these proposals?


I think it would be too early to answer the right hon. Gentleman's last question, but I must of course make it quite clear that my reference to Western Europe was only in connection with the efforts which we must make to replace the Locarno Treaty, which is a treaty concerned with Western Europe. In addition, I think my statement made it quite plain that our objective is very much wider than that. As to the exchange of letters, the White Paper will be available to the House, and I confess that, unless the House would wish me to do so, I should be rather reluctant to try to summarise them. I should be prepared to read them but I think that hon. Members would prefer to read them for themselves.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.