HC Deb 09 October 1945 vol 414 cc35-43
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Ernest Bevin)

I desire to make a statement on the work of the Council of Foreign Ministers. I have refrained since the close of the Council from making any public statement until the House met. The Conference opened on nth September. Having studied the terms of reference of the Council which were laid down in the protocol of the Berlin Conference, I thought it right to submit to my colleagues at the opening meeting a suggestion as to procedure. I suggested that it would be inconvenient if some of the Members of the Council had to be excluded from some of the meetings. It would be even more inconvenient, I said, if some Members had to be asked to leave a particular meeting while some of the items on the agenda were discussed. I felt that the business of the Conference could be much more easily arranged if it could be agreed that all five Members could take part in all discussions, even though on matters relating to the peace settlements the power to take decisions in the Council was confined to Members whose Governments had signed or were deemed to have signed, the relevant terms of surrender.

Mr. Byrnes, the Secretary of State for the United States, took the same view as I did, and Mr. Molotov said that he agreed with my proposal if, as he understood it, it meant that all five members of the Council should attend all meetings, and, if they desired, participate in the discussions, but that decisions should be taken only by the delegations representing the Governments which were, or by the Council's terms of reference were deemed to be, signatories of the relevent terms of surrender.

All being agreed on this interpretation of the Berlin Protocol, the proposal which I had made was adopted without dissent. I am sure that when we passed this resolution at our opening meeting we believed that we had faithfully interpreted the understanding reached by the signatories of the Protocol. In accordance with this resolution the Council held 16 plenary meetings during ten days of hardwork, and had made much progress, not only on general questions but on treaty questions as well. We had practically reached agreement on the draft of a treaty with Finland, and had made provision for the reference of this question to the Deputies. We had made considerable progress on the draft treaty with Italy. We had considered and satisfactorily disposed of several aspects of this treaty. For example, in the difficult question of the Italian-Yugoslav frontier, the Council agreed to hear the views of the Governments of Yugoslavia and Italy as well as of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. After these hearings, the Council instructed their Deputies to report on a line which left a minimum population under alien rule.

The Deputies were also asked to report on an international regime for the port of Trieste. The cession of the Dodecanese to Greece was proposed but no final settlement was reached. On the question of the disposal of the Italian colonies, the United States delegation put forward a proposal which his Majesty's Government instructed me to support, since they felt that this was a wise and a far-seeing proposal which would avoid friction between the Great Powers in these areas, and would give a chance for a great experiment in international co-operation. The American proposal provided for the placing of these Italian territories under a collective trusteeship by the United Nations Organisation as a whole. It was agreed after discussion that this question of trusteeship for the Italian colonies should be referred to the Deputies, who would make the widest possible use of the American proposals, and take into account also the alternative proposal of a single State trusteeship. Thus on this difficult matter we had, despite divergent views, reached a general agreement as to the basis upon which it should be further examined.

To continue with my account of the work on the peace treaties done in the early part of the Conference, we had made a start on the draft treaties for Rumania and Bulgaria. There were before the Council proposals by the Soviet, British and United States delegations. We took the Soviet proposals as a basis and several points raised in the British proposals were disposed of. We then proceeded to discuss the United States proposals regarding the draft peace treaty with Rumania. These United States proposals brought up the whole question of the recognition of the Government of Rumania, since it has been made clear in them that the United States Government, while ready to discuss a draft, would not negotiate a peace treaty with Rumania until a broadly representative government had been established in that country. Much the same issue came up in connection with the draft treaty for Bulgaria. Since on this subject there was a great divergence of view, I proposed, in the hope of easing the difficulties of the position, that an independent inquiry should be made into conditions in these two countries.

I have said enough to show some of the difficulties of the negotiations in which we were engaged, and also the substantial progress that had been made in our discussions during the first ten days of the Council's meetings. I was therefore surprised when Mr. Molotov told Mr. Byrnes and myself on the morning of 22nd September that we had all violated the Berlin Agreement, and that he could not agree to continue discussions on the peace treaties under the procedure on which we had been working for ten days. I said to Mr. Molotov that I did not agree that the Berlin Agreement prevented us from working in the way in which we had been. And I pointed out to him that we had all agreed at our opening meeting that this was the way in which we intended to work. For the next few days Mr. Byrnes and I went over the arguments many times with Mr. Molotov, but could come to no agreement. Mr. Molotov held that the Berlin Agreement should be interpreted in one way and Mr. Byrnes and I held that it should be interpreted in another, the way in which it had been interpreted when the Council passed its resolution of11th September. Through out these discussions I was concerned to urge the wider interpretation which would have given an opportunity to the Dominions and other Governments who had made material contributions to the defeat of the Axis, to express their views at the peace settlement. Since the three Foreign Secretaries could not agree on the interpretation of the Agreement we decided to refer to the three Heads of Governments. President Truman and Mr. Attlee endorsed the views which Mr. Byrnes and I had expressed; Marshal Stalin endorsed the view which Mr. Molotov had expressed; so we were no nearer an agreement.

I must now say a word about the Berlin Agreement. It lays down very clearly that the immediate important task of the Council is to draw up peace treaties with Italy, Rumania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Finland. It lays down that members other than the signatories of the terms of surrender will be invited to participate when matters directly concerning them are under discussion. I ought to explain that in accepting the invitation to join the Council the French Government had represented that it was perforce interested in all settlements in Europe. The Berlin Agreement also lays down that the Council may adapt its procedure to the particular problem under consideration, and we think that all the members of the Council, including the Soviet, agreed that that was what we were to do when the resolution of nth September was drawn up. In fact it was the representative of China who presided over the Council on the day when it was decided to invite certain Governments to send representatives to discuss the question of Trieste, and it was the representative of China in whose name the invitations were sent out. He happened to be the chairman for that particular session. So, on nth September, and for ten days afterwards, Mr. Molotov seemed to agree with us, and we never thought otherwise. He told us later that his new attitude was taken up on instructions from his Government. If we had given effect to the interpretation on which the Soviet Delegation insisted it would have meant that in discussing the Balkan Treaties we should have had to say in effect to the representatives of France and China, "Now you must leave the room while we are discussing these matters." And when we came to the Finnish Treaty we should have had to invite the United States to withdraw as well. Such a request by some of the Powers to their partners would obviously have created international difficulties which the United States and British Delegations did not feel they should be called upon to face. How could it, moreover, have been reconciled with the Charter of the United Nations organization, which lays upon the five Powers as permanent members of the Security Council a special responsibility to maintain the peace of the world?

As we could not reach agreement on the interpretation of the Berlin document and as the general questions on the agenda had become exhausted the time came when we had to see whether we could at least agree on what had already been discussed. But when it came to the point we ran up against the same difficulty. Mr. Molotov proposed that instead of one Protocol recording the Council's decisions there should be four separate Protocols; one on general questions which would be signed by all five members of the Council; the second on the Italian Peace Treaty, which would be signed by the representatives of the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, the United States and France; the third dealing with Bulgaria, Hungary and Roumania, which would be signed by the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and the United States; and the fourth dealing with Finland, which would be signed by the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. After some discussion we agreed to Mr. Molotov's proposal, but he then maintained that before he would sign any of the Protocols the Council must strike out from its record the decision taken on nth September. This no one else was prepared to do. This would in effect not have given a true record of our procedure. We proposed, however, that a passage should be inserted in the Protocol making it clear that Mr. Molotov had on 22nd September stated that the resolution of 11th September had in the view of his Government been a breach of the Berlin Agreement.

Mr. Byrnes and I did our best to persuade Mr. Molotov that the terms of reference of the Council were wide enough to admit of a common sense interpretation. Mr. Byrnes attempted to find a way out of the difficulties by proposing that a conference should be called for the purpose of submitting the Peace Treaties when drawn up. To this conference all the five Powers would be invited, together with other States which had contributed materially to the defeat of the Axis. But the Soviet representative maintained that only the three signatories of the Berlin Agreement could discuss or pronounce upon this proposal.

As the House is aware, the conference broke up on Tuesday, 2nd October. On Sunday night Mr. Molotov had said that he could not sign any of the Protocols if his point could not be accepted. On the suggestion of the Chinese Foreign Minister, the conference was that night extended to the Tuesday. For my part I spent Monday until the meeting of the Council late that night in consultation with my colleagues and made every effort to try and find a way out of our difficulties. But it was clear that there was little hope of any accommodation. It seemed to me, as to Mr. Byrnes, that the difference of view with the Soviet Delegation, technical though it might appear to be, in reality involved a big question of principle—to what extent are the Big. Three to exclude other nations from the discussion of matters of grave concern to them? This principle, I felt, it was incumbent on me to defend.

I know the disappointment that is felt in the House and throughout the world at the breakdown of the first meeting of this Council, which was set up to deal not only with peace treaties but also with other matters. Many matters other than the preparation of the peace treaties were discussed, even if not settled, at the meetings of the Council. There was, for instance, the question of the inland European waterways, which are so important when it comes to getting the transport system of Europe started again and the people fed. We failed to settle it. Reparations and other problems of Germany were also discussed. There was the question of the Government of Austria and the feeding of the people in that unhappy country. On the latter and several other matters progress was made. A return to normal and happy conditions in. Europe, to which the peace treaties must be the first step, is what the world is waiting for. This temporary breakdown will, I hope, lead to the further discussion of these matters on the basis of what is best for permanent peace, because I am sure that that is what the whole world wants. Perhaps when we met in London in September we were a little too close to two great victories for us to be able to reach immediate agreement. For the future I can say with confidence that, given time, and if we all continue to apply patience and an understanding of each other's difficulties, we shall overcome present divergencies and any others which may reveal themselves. For our part we shall certainly work in the same spirit of co-operation with which the countries united to pursue the war against our enemies.

I should, in conclusion, like to read a message which Mr. Molotov sent to me on leaving this country and the reply which I sent to him. From Mr. Molotov: "On leaving the borders of our Ally Great Britain I beg to transmit to the British Government my thanks for the warm welcome given to me and to those accompanying me. I express confidence that, the war against our common enemies having been victoriously concluded, our future collaboration in the interests of the peoples of Great Britain and the Soviet Union and of the strengthening of peace throughout the world will continue, having overcome the temporary difficulties encountered on the way, and that we shall jointly endeavour successfully to achieve this great end."

I replied to Mr. Molotov as follows: I was very pleased to receive your kind message sent on the occasion of your departure from this country after the Foreign Secretaries Conference. I share your confidence in our future collaboration in the interest of the peoples of the Soviet Union and Great Britain and for the strengthening of peace throughout the world. We may, as you say, encounter difficulties on the way, but the cause we servo is so compelling that no trouble must remain unmastered in the pursuit of this high aim. Mankind throughout the world wants peace, economic recovery and a rising standard of life. The fulfilment of this must be our prime purpose.

Mr. Churchill

The House, without distinction of party, is endebted to the Foreign Secretary for the clear, temperate and able statement he has made upon the disappointing events which have taken place. I suppose that the House will wish, on some convenient occasion, to debate the general position of our foreign affairs, but we on this side of the House should be very ready to consult the Government's convenience in the matter as to whether it should be next week or the week after. I would suggest, if it were agreeable, that discussions should proceed through the usual channels with a view to determining what time would be most in accordance with convenience and the public interest for the discussion on this matter to be resumed.

Mr. Bevin

I thank my right hon. Friend for that. I do not, of course, burk debate whenever the House wants it, but I think the situation is so delicate that if the debate were delayed for a little while it may be that the strings would be remended and the national and international interests be better served.

Mr. Cocks

May I ask whether 22nd September, when the procedure question was raised, was the day after the deadlock was reached on Rumania?

Mr. Bevin

There was not a deadlock reached. It was the day after the exchange of views took place.

Mr. Awbery

Will the right hon. Gentleman inform the House whether the Dominion Governments were kept fully informed of the proceedings of the Conference day by day?

Mr. Bevin

We, of course, are very anxious that the Dominions should be with us in everything, and the Prime Minister took steps, although there was not much time, to see if it was possible to consult the Prime Ministers of the Dominions before the Conference opened—they could not possibly get here—and therefore the closest possible contact was kept right throughout the whole proceedings.

Mr. Gallacher

While I would not like to make the task of the Foreign Secretary harder I must ask whether it is not the case that this whole deadlock is around the question of the form of democratic government in Rumania and Bulgaria and that the Foreign Office is wedded to a form of democracy that recognises land-owners and robber capitalists? Yes, the Foreign Office wants a similar democracy in these countries. Will the Minister, pending the debate, take on the task of gutting out the Foreign Office and bringing it into line with the opinion in these other countries?

Mr. Bevin

I always deprecate, as I did in my previous Ministry, any Member of the House throwing slurs or castigations on the staff of an office. I am served by a good staff, and if decisions are taken they are my decisions and the attacks should be made upon me.

Mr. Sydney Silverman

Could my right hon. Friend define a little further what he meant by "a little while" in replying to the question put to him by the Leader of the Opposition as to the date for a Debate? Everyone appreciates the right hon. Gentleman's position and no one wants to embarrass the Government, but on the other hand he will realise that great anxieties have been caused and that a Debate should take place at some time.

Mr. Bevin

I am not the master of future events. I can only watch them evolve, and I will be guided by what develops and I will not burk debate.

Sir Henry Morris-Jones

Could the right hon. Gentleman tell us the date of the letter from Mr. Molotov, because it was only published this morning in the news bulletin? Has it recently come?

Mr. Bevin

It was written to me and left on the Wednesday night the Conference broke up. I cannot remember the date. We worked day and night and it seemed one date from the beginning of the Conference to the end.

Mr. McGovern

Would it not be better if these discussions were made public, so that the public could be informed of the points in dispute? In that case the public would be more behind the Government in its attitude.

Mr. Bevin

That is a dubious point. I doubt very much whether you would really get agreement. You already get half an hour of cameras before the meeting is opened, and that is torture enough.

Captain Blackburn

Is my right hon. Friend aware that allsections of British public opinion appreciate that he has made a fine stand for the rights of small nations for which this country has always stood?