HL Deb 28 June 1861 vol 164 cc8-16

rose pursuant to notice, to call attention to the prolonged occupation of Northern Savoy by France; and to inquire if any and what arrangements have been made, in accordance with Her Majesty's most gracious Speech from the Throne of August last, with a view to give continued force to the engagements of the Treaty of Vienna, in connection with the assumed obligations of the Second Article of the Treaty of Turin, and to secure an effective guarantee for the maintenance of the inviolability and independence of Switzerland? The noble Earl said, there was a twofold question in connection with this subject—first, as to the general annexation of Nice and Savoy; and, secondly, a special and more limited question, with which alone he should trouble the House, respecting the annexation of that northern part of Savoy which had been declared neutral by the Treaties of Vienna, for the purpose of giving Switzerland a good defensive military position. He would not attempt to trace out the devious course of diplomacy by which the annexation of Nice and Savoy had been preceded; he would not even go into the ge- neral question respecting that annexation, because, though undoubtedly it was accomplished in violation of treaties, the spirit rather than the letter of those treaties had been broken. But the occupation of Northern Savoy vitally affected the interests of Switzerland. It was not merely that it had been a part of the traditional policy of Europe to commit the passes of the Alps, the keys of Northern Italy, to the hands of a Power strong enough to hold them, but not strong enough to abuse them, but that the possession by Switzerland in time of war of these Northern districts of Savoy had been repeatedly declared by the highest political and military authorities to be both a sufficient and a necessary barrier against foreign aggression. This if it did not actually give them Switzerland a material guarantee for its freedom and independence against any great systematic attack of a large military empire, yet with her spirited population was such that she might for awhile hold her enemies at bay until she could receive the succour which Europe was pledged to afford to her. On the other hand, if these districts were taken away, Switzerland lost her military frontier, and from that moment was open to the first invasion, and perfectly defenceless. It was with a view to these circumstances, and to prevent such a calamity, that in the Treaty of Vienna, the integrity of Switzerland had been declared to be one of the highest objects of policy to the Sovereigns assembled there, and that the contracting Powers agreed that this district should be neutralized, and remain for the time being in the hands of the King of Sardinia. It was in violation of this treaty that the cession had been made by Sardinia to France, and the cession was admitted by France herself to be illegal. The noble Lord the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, had over and over again declared that it was the object of Her Majesty's Government to maintain this policy as to the independence of Switzerland. It was perfectly true that there had been a great deal of controversy as to the neutralization of this district. France contended that this neutralization was imposed on Switzerland as a burden and an obligation. Sardinia had endeavoured to show that the neutralization had been effected in her interests; whilst Switzerland had uniformly contended, and proved by the undoubted history of the past, that this military frontier was a protection and a privilege; and the Secre- tary for Foreign Affairs (Lord John Russell) had always endorsed that view. Till last year this district was attached to Sardinia, as neutral territory, and thus gave Switzerland a guarantee for her independence. At the close of last Session the words of the Royal Speech were— Her Majesty trusts that, in any Negotiations which may take place, full and adequate Arrangements will be made for securing, in Accordance with the Spirit and Letter of the Treaty of Vienna of 1815, the Neutrality and Independence of the Swiss Confederation. This was the language of the Speech from the Throne on the 28th of August last, proving that the Government felt the importance of the subject of guaranteeing the integrity of Switzerland, and that some arrangements were absolutely necessary for replacing the broken law of Europe. The language of the Government in its despatches was even stronger. Lord John Russell, in writing to Lord Cowley, said the Treaty of Turin could not be considered as part of the public law of Europe, and as such it had not received any formal acknowledgement. By the speech, therefore, of Her Majesty, and by the language of the Government he was justified in saying that the occupation of Northern Savoy where it was not competent for Sardinia to cede or for France to accept that territory unacknowledged and protested against by England remained to this hour a standing breach of the constitutional and public law of Europe. Now, was there no mode of extrication from this difficulty? Italy having had her share in the recent bargain was practically precluded from having any voice in the matter. France claimed the district as her territory. Of late years—he might say it without offence to the French Government—it had, to the exclusion of other objects—almost to the exclusion of literature and science—been imbued more and more with military feeling. Military honours and distinctions were the great objects of public life, and the Emperor, as embodying this feeling, did an act not wholly unpopular, when he drew a prize from this lottery. Still, the position of France was not satisfactory; France herself admitted that the position required an alteration, that she ought to exchange the illegal occupation for one more in unison with public treaties and public law. Though we could not altogether forgive what had passed, yet it might be condoned, provided that the past was, as far as possible, remedied and that the recent annexation was not made a precedent. They required that in spirit, if not in the letter, the public treaties guaranteeing the neutrality of this territory should be maintained. The Treaty of Turin, under which Sardinia ceded it, had broken that settlement. But in that treaty there was one article, by which the Emperor, in accepting the treaty, accepted the obligations imposed in respect of the territory by former treaties, and it provided that France should come to an understanding both with the Swiss Confederation and the other Powers of Europe, for giving fresh securities for the independence and integrity of Switzerland. It ought not to be forgotten that the French Government had not only offered to neutralize the province, but in the earlier stages of the question, had actually offered to abandon to Switzerland Chablais and Faucigny. That was not an isolated promise. The same assurance was given by the French Consul at Geneva, and subsequently M. Thouvenel expressed to Lord Cowley the opinion of the French Government that it was desirable that Chablais and Faucigny should be permanently united to Switzerland. These promises, so clearly and explicitly made, were subsequently modified and withdrawn; but still the French Government continued to express sympathy with Switzerland, and a friendly interest in her affairs. In April M. Thouvenel proposed to this country a plan by which the neutrality of Switzerland should be secured; and, about a month afterwards, he laid down three bases by which the two countries of England and France might unite in securing that independence. He quoted these words in order to show that, though in the first instance the French Government had withdrawn its promises, yet, if any reliance was to be placed in words, there was every disposition to come to an agreement with this country in some equitable arrangement by which the independence of Switzerland might be secured. In the next place, it was highly desirable that the present illegal occupation should as soon as possible be converted into one that was more in unison with the public law of Europe. In the third place, their Lordships must bear in mind that Switzerland desired a military frontier, and not a mere diplomatic guarantee. It was obvious that there was not a single point of comparison between the possession of Northern Savoy by France, and its possession by Sardinia—by the greatest military empire in the world, or a kingdom which only last year was but a third-class Power in Europe. What constituted a sufficiently valid guarantee under the trusteeship of Sardinia was no guarantee at all when it passed under the dominion of France. He had now gone through most of those points which he desired to bring before their Lordships—very imperfectly and briefly he knew; but he trusted he had indicated enough to draw their Lordships' attention to the matter. He should be sorry if the House were to feel that he had brought forward this question merely as a matter of debate, or on light and theoretical grounds—he had done so from a strong conviction of the effect of these events upon the peace of Europe. Every one at all cognizant of the affairs of Switzerland were of opinion that great dangers were now menacing that country. He need hardly remind their Lordships that the natural consequence of a wrongful act was to repeat itself in fresh wrongs; that the wrong-doer was unable to stop in his career, and was impelled forward, step by step, by the agency of causes which, though he was the first to set in motion, he was utterly unable to check. The noble Lord the Foreign Secretary last year expressed most forcibly and truly the dangers which would menace Switzerland if Northern Savoy were annexed to France. That annexation had taken place; and he was bound to say that every one of the dangers forcibly and truly set forth in the noble Lord's despatches had been fully realized. At this moment France had pierced the frontier of Switzerland and overlapped her territory. She was politically and strategically the mistress of the mountains. Chambery was for all practical purposes brought close to the gates of Lyons, and French troops were within a few hours' march of the Lake of Geneva. French agents—he said not from whence they came or by whom they were sent—were trafficking in Switzerland, and Swiss soldiers were negotiating at Paris. In every part of Switzerland there was great fear and apprehension, and a consciousness of the overwhelming force and irresistible influence of France unless they were upheld by the public opinion of other countries. The condition of affairs was now materially changed. Last year there was a French population of 20,000 resident in Geneva, but that was balanced by a population of 20,000 Savoyards. But now those Savoyards no longer owed allegiance to the King of Sardinia, they were the subjects of the Emperor of France; so that, practically, there was now a population of 40,000 Frenchmen in Geneva. Let it not be thought that this was a chimerical objection; for though the Savoyards had been most reluctantly annexed to France, yet now, when the King of Sardinia had east away the loyalty of 800 years, by a natural revulsion of feeling which their Lordships could understand, however they might regret it, the Savoyards were determined that, as far as lay in their power, if Savoy could not be attached to Geneva, Geneva should be attached to Savoy. But it was not this or any other particular danger that was on the horizon. The whole atmosphere of Switzerland was charged with dangerous influences. What conclusions were they to draw from the recent visit of Prince Napoleon to Geneva?—a visit associated in the public mind with some impending change or territorial aggression. What inferences were they to draw from the rumours that were in circulation throughout Switzerland respecting annexations and redistributions of territory—rumours similar to those that heralded the annexation of Savoy—passing from local journals into the higher circles—then denied, then affirmed, then denied again, and latterly by the Ministers of both Governments; until at last it was consummated? What inferences were they to draw from the fact that the wisest, most moderate, and liberal statesmen of Switzerland were filled with apprehension at the present state of things? In the occupation of Northern Savoy by France there was to be seen overwhelming strength on the one hand and utter weakness on the other. The railways converging on Switzerland might, in the event of hostilities, bring 20,000 troops into that country within twenty-four hours. The fortresses of Switzerland and her military stores were practically unguarded, because, although they recognized the danger, they feared to take those measures of defence which might be construed into a cause of offence. Surely in such a condition Switzerland deserved the sympathy of the Parliament of this free country. She had borne her trials with unexampled constancy; she had fully appreciated her position; she was proof against the most seductive offers; she was proof against taunts that could not be mistaken and threats that were not disguised. She had impartially held on her way, maintaining her rights and vindicating the duties which the treaties of the last fifty years had imposed on her. Europe had laid on her the obligation of neutrality, that there might be one spot in central Europe where the oppressed might find refuge, and whose very neutrality in the heat of a general war might be an argument for, and a pledge of future peace. My Lords, continued the noble Earl, no one ever enjoyed more largely the benefits of Switzerland's neutrality than the present Emperor of the French. I believe that that great Sovereign, since his accession to prosperity and power, has never shown himself oblivious of any acts of personal kindness and friendship which he experienced in the days of his adversity and exile. I hope, therefore, that the generous return which the Emperor has known how to make to individuals will not be denied by him to the country which once afforded him its protection. And when I remember the firmness with which Switzerland in his cause maintained, even at the risk of war, the inviolability of her asylum for political refugees, I cannot bring myself to think until I am, indeed, obliged to do so, that all sense of gratitude is banished from the Imperial Court of France. The noble Lord concluded by putting the question.


My Lords, I do not at all complain of my noble Friend for having brought this subject under discussion; but having listened very attentively to his speech, I must say, I am altogether unable to discover to what practical conclusion he would lead your Lordships. My noble Friend has accurately stated the effect of the despatches written by Lord John Russell, and laid on your Lordships table during last year, and which informed your Lordships of the exact position in which this matter then stood. In point of fact, that position, as far as I am aware, has in no way changed since those despatches were written. In the month of July last my noble Friend Lord John Russell accepted the proposal of the French Government of a Conference to take into consideration how the 92nd Article of the Treaty of Vienna should be reconciled with the 2nd Article of the Treaty of Turin. The despatch in which he accepted that proposal was laid upon the table. Subsequently, however, objections were made by the Governments of Russia, Prussia, and Austria to an immediate meeting of such a Conference, and in consequence of those objections the Conference was postponed. My noble Friend Lord John Russell, in stating that Her Majesty's Government acquiesced in that postponement, added that he did so on the understanding that the present occupation of Savoy by France should not be regarded as forming a portion of the public law of Europe. In that position the matter has remained ever since; and my noble Friend opposite, in pointing out, as he has done, in very forcible language, the inconvenience of that occupation, which has not been sanctioned by the public law of Europe, has altogether failed to suggest any means by which Her Majesty's Government could bring about the sanction of it in a manner that would be consonant with their opinions of how the Treaty of Vienna should be upheld. The treaty out of which has arisen the whole of the present controversy was signed, not by England only, but by all the other great Powers of Europe; and, if those other Powers do not think it necessary that negotiations should take place in order that the recent Treaty of Turin should be reconciled with the Treaty of Vienna, it is impossible for Her Majesty's Government, by any act of its own, to bring about any such reconciliation. My noble Friend opposite went at some length into the various questions which were raised in the course of the many discussions that occurred last year, and in much that he said I entirely agree. But it is neither requisite not convenient that I should now enter again into those various questions and restate our objections to the course pursued by the French Government, which objections Her Majesty's Government not only did not conceal, but which they stated at the proper time in the clearest and plainest manner, and which were set forth in the despatches laid upon your Lordship's table, and also formed the subject of consideration throughout Europe. Indeed, I conceive that, as far as protesting and stating objections went, Her Majesty's Government did all that could have been demanded of them by the strongest opponents of the annexation of Savoy. More than that, I believe nobody ever proposed anything should be done in the matter by this country. That being so, it seems to me that it would neither be consistent with the dignity of England, not wise and politic, to continue or revive a discussion that can have no practical end, and which we have no power to bring to any useful conclusion. Such a course must tend to prejudice those relations which on every ground we desire should retain their friendly character, and I must say those discussions were entirely exhausted during the last year. I deplore, as much as my noble Friend opposite deplores, that Switzerland should remain in a position which may, undoubtedly, be called an uncomfortable one with respect to this question. It is not only extremely inconvenient that there should be upon her frontier a territory the exact position of which is not defined by the public law of Europe—I mean not recognized by all the great European Powers; but it is, likewise, well known that it is the opinion of Her Majesty's Government that that position is not one that should be recognized. If Switzerland should be able to find any means by which these differences might be reconciled—if she could discover any mode of inducing the French Government to make such concessions to her as she thinks requisite for her security, and as would allay the fears she entertains—none would rejoice more than I should, and I am sure that Her Majesty's Government would do everything in their power to facilitate any such conclusion. My Lords, I feel so unwilling to reiterate objections which are perfectly familiar to all your Lordships or to enter again into a controversy which has been so fully brought forward in the published despatches, that, notwithstanding that may noble Friend may think I give but a slight answer to his remarks, I must ask the House not to pursue this subject further. I will merely repeat that the matter remains in the same position in which it stood during the last summer; that no negotiations have taken place upon it, because the other great Powers have not thought it desirable to enter into such negotiations; that Her Majesty's Government do not feel themselves able to force those negotiations upon the other great European Powers: and that it would not therefore be consistent with the dignity of this country, or wise and politic, to continue discussions that would lead to no practical result.