HL Deb 18 May 1866 vol 183 cc1131-4

My Lords, we are about to separate for the holidays, and we shall be for the next ten days without the facility of communicating with Her Majesty's Government on the present very important, critical, and threatening state of affairs on the Continent. Within the last few days there have been gleams of hope thrown upon the black prospect; but, on the other hand, we have seen in all the movements of armies anything but substantial reasons for apprehending that things have improved since the last time this subject was mentioned in this House. My Lords, I think it may be a service rendered to the public if we afford Her Majesty's Government the opportunity of throwing some light on this subject, so far as the delicate state of affairs may allow, before our separation. There is reason to hope—if we may trust rumours here and there which appear in the newspapers—that efforts have been made to bring about a Congress, and that some impression has been made on that great monarch who may be considered the arbiter of affairs on the Continent. I give full credit to Her Majesty's Government for an intention to do everything in their power to avert the great calamity which threatens Europe; but still it would be a great satisfaction to this House, and a great advantage to the commercial community, to know if there be any circumstance which may justify us in entertaining a hope that the efforts of Her Majesty's Government are such as to give reasonable prospect of a successful issue. When we look at the immense extent to which war is likely to be carried, if it unfortunately should take place—if we consider the vast interests involved, not only material but moral; when we see the new-fangled doctrines which are advanced as elements of confusion, but entertained by those who put them forward with a better hope; when we see the great man himself at the head of affairs in France holding language fatal to the treaties by which all Europe holds, and somewhat at variance with the principles of International Law as generally interpreted—I say, when we see these things, it is natural for us to wish to have all the light thrown on the subject which Her Majesty's Government feels itself at liberty to afford. In Italy—and I may say for myself there are few men who entertain a more ardent wish for the prosperity of that country than I do, and who more lament that the great scheme of Italian Unity was not carried out in the first instance; but I must say there is something of still more value, and that is the conservation of the moral principle of Europe—when we see a danger that the interests of all other European countries may be thrown into the shade and sacrificed; and, after all, whatever opinions we may entertain individually, it cannot be denied that Austria, with respect to Venetia, rests her claim upon a foundation of right—her possession of that country has Seen sanctioned by treaty with France. We may lament that she does not perceive her real interests more truly, but we cannot ignore the rights she has; and when I see the troops of Italy moving—when I see the interests of that great country placed in jeopardy in order to snatch the opportunity of seizing a district of country against all right—I say that is a subject which increases the apprehension which the present aspect of affairs on the Continent is calculated to inspire. So in Germany we find most extraordinary ideas put forward. Notions not only of universal suffrage, but of something far beyond it, are put forward by a Minister who cannot comprehend, or make the measures of his Government coincide with, the constitution established and recognized in his country. When we see these things, they seem to me to contain elements of confusion if, unfortunately, war should occur. Under these circumstances, and when we consider the confusion which has lately prevailed in the mercantile interests of this country, and the favourable operation of even the slight hopes gathered from the Continent on their monetary system within the last few days, I am the more induced to call on the Government to give us quantum valeat, the benefit of any fact which may afford us a satisfactory prospect of peace. I do not wish to tax the indulgence of the House any further; I will, therefore, conclude by reading the Question which I wish to put to my noble Mend on the opposite side of the House. The Question I have to put to the noble Earl the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs is, Whether any negotiations, or preliminaries to negotiations, official or confidential, are actually in progress on the part of Her Majesty's Government with a view to a settlement, by a Congress or other peaceful means, of those unhappy differences among several of the great Continental Powers which threaten to expose to imminent risk the peace of Europe? If the answer to that Question should be in the affirmative, I should like to know whether those negotiations appeared, in present circumstances, to offer a reasonable prospect of an amicable issue?


My Lords, it is impossible to over-estimate the importance of the situation at the present crisis, and I therefore thank my noble Friend for having exercised such a wise discretion in asking the Question he has addressed to me before the House separates for the vacation. In reply to his Question, I will state that official, and I may say confidential, communications are at this moment in progress; but it would scarcely be advisable that I should state their exact character. They are going on at this moment, and I hope they may terminate in the meeting together of all the Powers concerned—not only those which are neutral, but those which are armed. I cannot hold out any hope that may insure peace, but I think that a meeting of all the Powers, both those concerned and those not immediately concerned, to deliberate on these differences, may give some hope of an amicable issue. I can only say that no effort of Her Majesty's Government will be wanting to preserve peace; and I believe it is also the wish of the Emperor of France; but in the present state of the communications—I will not say negotiations—I think it would not be advisable to say anything further.

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