HL Deb 19 April 1875 vol 223 cc1199-202

My Lords, two Questions stand on the Paper in my name—one is to ask, Whether my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs considers the correspondence between Germany and Belgium entirely terminated: the other is, Whether that Correspondence causes him any fears for the maintenance of the peace of Europe? My Lords, I do not rise for the purpose of putting the first Question; because since I gave Notice of it a further Note appears to have been addressed by Germany to Belgium; but I should like to make some observations with reference to the international relations of the two countries, and as to the probable effect of those relations on the peace of Europe. Now, my Lords, in looking back to the commencement of the present century, I find in the pages nothing more wise—nothing of which England should be more proud, than the principles then laid down by the British Government. In 1802 Lord Hawkesbury wrote a despatch in which, referring to libels which were then being published in this country, he said that while jealously upholding the liberty of the Press, he, at the same time, held that the tribunals of this country had full power to entertain complaints against persons who published libels against those who conducted the French Government and to punish them for such publications. He also said he was told by eminent lawyers that this country would be guilty of a breach of amity if it did not proceed against such persons. When Lord Hawkesbury wrote that despatch libels of a violent kind were being published here against the First Consul of the French Republic. The Attorney General of the Government of that day took care to prosecute the persons who wrote those violent and malicious libels: all the eloquence and ability of Sir James Mackintosh did not prevail against the Attorney General, and but for the war in Egypt those persons would have been punished. The rule laid down by Lord Hawkesbury is the right one—that we should do nothing to curtail the liberty of the Press, while, at the same time, we should take care to prosecute and punish those who make libellous attacks on persons in power and authority in other countries. That is the principle laid down by Lord Hawkesbury; and I hope that when this Correspondence is laid on your Lordships' Table it will appear that the German Government have not asked anything inconsistent with that principle—I hope it will appear that the German Government did not propose to Belgium to give up any portion of that liberty of the Press which is enjoyed in Belgium, but only wished to have those persons punished who had written to a French Archbishop to propose that the life of Prince Bismarck should be taken by assassination. I trust that when this despatch comes to be laid on the Table your Lordships will find that nothing has been asked by the German Government which is unreasonable—that it has not thought it necessary to ask for any new legislation—but only that the principles laid down by Lord Hawkesbury in 1802—of which we may justly be proud—are those principles which are expected to prevail at the present time. At all events, I am sure it will require all the care and discretion of the noble Earl the Secretary for Foreign Affairs to reconcile the different views of Belgium and Germany, and to induce them to come to an agreement which shall be honourable to all, and at the same time small maintain the peace of Europe. I do not ask anything more now, because I think the last step taken by Germany will tend to preserve the peace of Europe; and I think that the two Powers waiting—as it would appear they do wait—in a desire for peace, will be able to come to an understanding on the subject. It appears to me that it will not be difficult to obtain such a com- promise. I will ask the noble Earl to say that when this Correspondence—which has appeared in the French newspapers and which has been read in the Belgian Chamber by the Minister for Foreign Affairs—reaches his hands it will be produced to both Houses of Parliament, we shall have the benefit of further inquiry and discussion. I am quite sure it does not require any interference with the existing law of nations or any new system of international law to carry out the principles laid down by Lord Hawkesbury in 1802.


My Lords, it may not be necessary, but probably it may be convenient, for me to remind your Lordships of the exact position in which this Belgian business now stands. The German Note and the Belgian Note have been published in The Moniteur Belge; they were read in the Belgian Chambers and they are now before the Belgian public. I hope the first Note of the German Government will be found to bear out the description given of it in "another place" by my right hon. Friend at the head of the Government—that it is in no sense a menace, but rather a friendly remonstrance on a point respecting which the two Governments differed. The second German Note reached my hands only this afternoon shortly before I came to the House, and I have had no time to do more than examine it in a hasty and superficial manner; but the German Ambassador has described it to me, and I am authorized by him to say that he has done so, as being conceived in an entirely friendly spirit. I am bound to say that I have heard a similar description of it from other quarters, and, as far as I can see, there is nothing in its contents to create a different impression. As I understand, the reply which the Belgian Government intend to send to Germany will be laid before the Belgian Chambers, and when the whole of the Correspondence is thus made public property, there will be no difficulty in laying it before Parliament. I may observe that Her Majesty's Government has not been formally consulted by either party. If such an appeal should be made—and I shall not pretend to say that it may not be—it would be made, not to one Government only, but to all the Governments of the Guaranteeing Powers. I think it would be imprudent and impolitic on my part to express any opinion on the question now, especially as we have in this country only a very moderate knowledge of some of the facts; but I do not hesitate to say that European opinion has considerably exaggerated the importance of the incident, and that, as at present advised, I look forward to its termination without any uneasiness as to its effect upon the peace of Europe, or upon the integrity and independence of Belgium.