HC Deb 31 January 1939 vol 343 cc36-41
62. Mr. Bellenger

asked the Prime Minister whether he has any statement to make to the House with regard to his recent visit to Rome?

70. Sir G. Mitcheson

asked the Prime Minister whether he has any statement to make on his visit to Rome?

The Prime Minister

Perhaps the hon. Members will be good enough to await the statement which I propose to make at the end of Questions.


The Prime Minister

The House will expect to hear from me some account of the visit which the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and I recently paid to Rome.

The genesis of this visit is already known to hon. Members. I need only say that I welcomed the opportunity afforded by Signor Mussolini's invitation to renew the personal contact established with him at Munich.

On our way through Paris we saw the French Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary at the Quai d'Orsay where a discussion of matters of mutual interest fully confirmed the general identity of views already established between our two Governments. On our arrival at Turin we were met by an official from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs who was attached to us during the whole of our stay on Italian soil. I should like to say here that the arrangements for our comfort and convenience throughout our visit were carried through with a thoughtful consideration and an efficiency which could not be surpassed and which we greatly appreciated.

The official welcomes extended to us both at Genoa on our arrival and at Turin on our departure were striking in their sincerity, and we much appreciated the arrangements made to enable us to greet and be greeted by members of the British colony wherever we went. Hon. Members will have read in their newspapers accounts of the warmth of our reception in Rome. Both the Foreign Secretary and myself were equally gratified by the welcome accorded us by Italian officials and touched by the spontaneity with which the Roman populace evinced their enthusiasm, thus demonstrating both their pleasure at the renewal of Anglo-Italian friendship and their approval of our efforts for the maintenance of peace.

The programme arranged for our visit is known to you all. The best tribute I can pay to its organisers is to say that it proceeded without a hitch, and that we saw the people and things we would most have liked to see in the brief time at our disposal.

I should like to repeat here once more what I endeavoured to convey to Signor Mussolini in the telegram which I sent him on leaving Italy: my warm thanks to him personally and my deep appreciation of the welcome accorded to us not only in Rome but throughout the course of our journey. The Foreign Secretary and I had two long conversations with Signor Mussolini and Count Ciano on 11th and 12th January at the Palazzo Venezia. These conversations were conducted in an atmosphere of complete frankness. It was not expected that either side would accept all the arguments and points of view put forward by the other, but though we are not able to report that we were in agreement on all points, we did achieve our purpose since when the conversations were over, each side had a clearer insight than before regarding the other's standpoint.

In no sense whatsoever was there anything in the nature of a formal conference or negotiation. This indeed, as hon. Members are aware, was not our object in accepting Signor Mussolini's invitation. Our discussions were exploratory and informal, and it would therefore be a discourtesy to the Italian Government to divulge in detail what passed. I have no hesitation, however, in giving the House the following general impressions which resulted from our conversations and I may add that in doing so I have the consent of Signor Mussolini and Count Ciano.

Signor Mussolini first and foremost made it clear that the policy of Italy was one of peace, and that he would gladly use his influence in favour of it if at any time the necessity arose. Italy desired peace from every point of view, and not least for the general stability of Europe.

I would remind the House that Signor Mussolini gave proof last September both of his willingness and of his ability to intervene in favour of peace. It was, therefore, very welcome to hear his assurances that his services could again be relied upon in case of need.

Our hosts also made it clear that the Berlin-Rome axis was an essential point of Italian foreign policy, but that this did not imply that it was impossible for Italy to have the most friendly relations with Great Britain and with other Powers when circumstances were favourable, or that good relations were not possible between Germany and France. We on our part made it equally plain that close co-operation between Great Britain and France was the basis of British policy.

As regards the Mediterranean, Signor Mussolini expressed satisfaction with the terms of the Anglo-Italian Agreement and repeated emphatically that it was Italy's intention to stand loyally by her obligations under the Agreement. We were able to take note that, on the eve of our visit to Rome, an important step had been taken for the carrying out of this Agreement, in the exchange of military information which had been effected in accordance with its provisions.

We agreed to proceed forthwith to the mutual discussion of the adjustment of boundaries between Italian East Africa on the one hand and the Sudan and British adjacent territories on the other, as provided for in the protocol to the Anglo-Italian Agreement. So far as the Sudan is concerned, the Egyptian Government will naturally participate in the forthcoming negotiations.

We made no concealment of our regret that Italy's relations with France should recently have deteriorated. It was clear to us from subsequent discussion that the great barrier between France and Italy was the Sanish question and that until the civil war was over no negotiations between the two countries were likely to be productive. At the same time Signor Mussolini emphasised that when the Spanish conflict was over Italy would have nothing to ask from Spain, and in further discussion with the Foreign Secretary on this point Count Ciano spontaneously reaffirmed the assurance already given to His Majesty's Government that Italy had no territorial ambitions as regards any portion of Spanish territory. Signor Mussolini did not hesitate to express the view that belligerent rights should immediately be granted to General Franco, but he reiterated his willingness to stand by the British plan which had been adopted by the Non-Intervention Committee.

As regards the guarantee to Czechoslovakia, Signor Mussolini indicated that in principle he was prepared to accept the idea of a guarantee of the frontiers of Czechoslovakia against unprovoked aggression. But he thought that there were three questions that had to be settled first—the internal constitution of Czechoslovakia itself, the establishment of her neutrality and the delimitation of the frontiers on the ground.

We had a useful discussion on the subject of disarmament from which it emerged that Signor Mussolini favoured an approach to the question by way of qualitative limitation in the first instance when conditions were more favourable for its discussion. We agreed to keep in touch with each other regarding the future development of this question.

With regard to the Jewish problem, it was clear that Signor Mussolini felt that the matter was an international one which could not be solved by any one State alone and which must be treated on broad lines.

No account of this visit of ours to Rome would be complete without some reference to our reception by His Holiness the Pope and the Cardinal Secretary of State at the Vatican on 13th January. It was a privilege which neither of us will easily forget, to hear from the lips of His Holiness the expressions of admiration and affection which he entertained for Their Majesties the King and Queen and for the peoples of the British Empire. Nor could we doubt the sincerity and depth of His Holiness' preoccupations with many of the problems which are troubling in these days the peace of Europe and the conscience of mankind. We were deeply moved by the courage and humanity which animated his bearing and outlook.

Mr. A. Henderson

In view of the declaration by Signor Mussolini of his willingness to discuss the provisions of the London Non-Intervention Agreement of July, 1937, may I ask whether that means that Signor Mussolini intends forthwith to withdraw all his troops from Spain, in view of the fact that the Spanish Government have withdrawn all foreign nationals serving on their side?

The Prime Minister

It certainly does not mean that. It means that if and when the British plan, which was adopted by the Non-Intervention Committee, comes into operation, he will do his part.

Mr. Bellenger

May I ask whether complete agreement was reached between the right hon. Gentleman and Signor Mussolini in the Rome discussions, on any subject, and if so, would the right hon. Gentleman care to disclose those subjects to the House?

The Prime Minister

I have given to the House a full account of what transpired.