HL Deb 23 February 1888 vol 322 cc1207-14

My Lords, the present Motion is directed to obtain further Papers on the late events in European Turkey. To justify the Motion, it would be sufficient to call attention to the Correspondence on Bulgaria. That Correspondence gives the narrative of incidents which followed the attempt to violate the Treaty of Berlin, and to extend the limits of the Vassal Principality. But it does not go beyond the end of 1886. For all that happened subsequently—and much has happened, as your Lordships know—we have but unauthenticated records.

My Lords, it is remarkable that, although the Eastern Question has been vividly re-opened by what occurred in September, 1885, not a voice in this House has since been heard upon it. At one time, and more especially under Lord Beaconsfield, the subject constantly engaged us. At present the House contains three noble Lords who have presided at the Foreign Office, three who have been Ambassadors at St. Petersburg, one who has held the same appointment at Berlin, two Under Secretaries of the Department mentioned, one Parliamentary and the other permanent. To-day it would, at least, be useful to elicit some of their conclusions as to the line which ought to be adopted. I do not wish myself to go too deeply or too fully into a topic which, since 1871, I have had many opportunities of handling.

The general position, I venture to submit, is that great difficulties are likely to arise out of the Bulgarian events unless a timely measure is adopted. I am not at all inclined to predict war under ordinary circumstances. It seems to me, after a course of observation, that war depends on individuals; that no war is able to produce itself unless, in one of the entangled Powers, some individual has resolved upon promoting it. Nations may be, indeed, excitable in feeling; but do not rush—so far as history tells us—by a spontaneous movement into conflict. On that ground I have habitually maintained in recent times that no war between France and Germany was imminent so long as neither at Paris nor Berlin you could refer to any leader ready to initiate it. It is not, therefore, as a person who exaggerates the tendency to war, but one who might be thought to underrate it, that I am inclined to anticipate disturbances in South-Eastern Europe, if no controlling influence is brought to bear—and even promptly—on the subject. My Lords, the Correspondence on Bulgaria—from which, however, I have no intention to read extracts—throws light upon the Russian grounds of interference in that country.

When in September, 1885, Prince Alexander acceded to the movement for uniting Eastern Roumelia with Bulgaria against the Treaty of Berlin, Russia was disposed—from any motives you think proper to assign—to uphold the Treaty, and to resist the deviation from it. It cannot be said that the other Signatory Powers have ever fully sanctioned the encroachment so as to raise it to legality. Russia, therefore, has a locus standi for protesting against the union which the sudden violence of insurrection and the sudden weakness of authority had called into existence. But Russia is entitled to complain of more than fusion of the countries intended by the Treaty to be separate. The Government of Bulgaria is now being carried on by a Prince who has no sanction at Constantinople, no sanction from the other Powers, and who, although elected in Bulgaria, has been elected by a Body of which—to use a guarded phrase—at least the regularity is doubtful. We must remember that, the Treaty of Berlin lays down three processes for the creation of a Vassal Prince, not one of which has been adhered to. But there is something further. The intruded Prince is not a member of the Bulgarian Church, or even in the Greek religion on which that Church, however separate in its establishment, is founded. It is true, the Treaty does not lay down that he must be so. But it may fairly be contended that a Prince of alien creed, of opposite convictions, although endorsed by popular enthusiasm for a time, will some day be obnoxious to a Party, as occurred from different causes to his Predecessor. His relations with the Exarch can never be entirely harmonious. On his arrival, there was a hostile movement in connection with this matter. The Exarch in that country, even politically speaking, is much too great a force to be passed over. The Bulgarian Church is well known to have been the germ of the Bulgarian Principality. Again—and I will pass as quickly as I can over so delicate a ground—in France there are contingencies—beyond the bounds of probability, but not of possibility—in which Prince Ferdinand would be the Member of a reigning Family, and so become disqualified to hold his situation in Bulgaria by an enactment of the Treaty.

The despatch writers of Russia, allowed for many years to be the first, are certain to present their case with accessory details and ingenious shades, so as to make it far more hard to grapple with than it would appear upon this statement. If, therefore, Russia is induced by motives unavowed to have recourse to arms, she must have the aspect of doing so as the champion of the Treaty. She may also, as regards Bulgaria, derive encouragement from that speech which has been ringing through the world, although I would not be too positive as to its true interpretation.

A hazard of this kind ought clearly not to be prolonged without an effort to abridge it. It may be said that efforts have been made already. We have heard of various expedients discussed between Russia and the Porte. But none have been adopted. There has been no Conference to regulate these difficulties. When everything else breaks down a Conference suggests itself. When was a Conference more needed? It would not be without a late example. The Treaty of Berlin left dangerous questions open between Greece and the Ottoman Empire. Although results arose which were not wholly satisfactory, it was only by a Conference that some adjustment was effected.

There is another ground on which a Conference may possibly be requisite or urgent. By a peculiar imperfection in the Treaty of Berlin, each Power has a veto on the nomination of the Vassal Prince in Bulgaria, and on the nomination of the Viceroys acting for the Porte in East Roumelia. The subject was debated in the Congress of 1878, and the noble Marquess now First Minister (the Marquess of Salisbury) did his utmost to establish the legal right of a majority. The result is, however, that if in either of these posts a vacancy occurs by death or resignation three times in any year, three times it might be utterly impossible to fill it, without collision between the Signatory Powers. A Conference might thus be necessary for two objects: to put an end to the intrigues and perils of Bulgaria; to prevent their unavoidable recurrence whenever vacancies arise in either of these offices.

These are the grounds on which a Conference—unless some better method is adopted—seems to be desirable. A high authority, however, may be quoted in its favour. In 1878 Prince Bismarck—and here I am again referring to the Protocols—used this language as it is translated. It is the only passage I shall read this evening:— If the Bulgarian populations, either through ill-will or innate incapacity, cannot make their institutions work, Europe will in truth be obliged to take counsel, but later on and when that time shall have arrived, It may be said, indeed, that by despatches, telegrams, and interviews, the European Powers are enabled to collect their wisdom, and that a Conference may thus be superseded. For two years they hare been doing so. The effort has been signally defective, and now we seem to be on the verge of grave events unless a Conference anticipates them. If it succeeds tranquillity will be secured. But time is gained even should no decision be arrived at.

We know the course of Russia in 1877, and the disquietude which followed it. But now her pretexts of aggression are much stronger and more specious. She would not have an European mandate to overthrow the recent usurpation in Bulgaria; but so she had not the shadow of an European mandate to go over the Pruth in 1877 as the guardian of the races said to be misgoverned under Ottoman dominion. But she went over. Her doing so was a grave encroachment on the Treaties of 1856, since the essence of those Treaties was to withdraw from Russia any special right of interference within the territory of the Sultan. At present she would interfere to vindicate a Treaty, not to overturn one. But if Russia occupies Bulgaria, Constantinople must in the long run, and after a certain time, be seriously threatened; while all the Mediterranean Powers—and not least the Power which holds Cyprus, Malta, Gibraltar, and provisionally Egypt—are interested in defending it.

But one thing must be admitted. A Conference can only be initiated by Great Britain. Prince Bismarck has pointed out that the function of leading on the Eastern Question now devolves upon Great Britain. For many reasons, better known to Her Majesty's Government than to myself, the proposal will not come from Berlin, from Vienna, or St. Petersburg, however welcome it might be in all those capitals or some of them. It may not be easy even to induce Russia to partake in any European Council. In 1878 it was not easy. But the noble Marquess and his Friends eventually succeeded. They may succeed now without employing all the methods which at that time were resorted to. The union of two Offices—First Minister and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs—in the person of the noble Marquess, so far as it divides his energy, imparts, no doubt, a greater difficulty to the task I have suggested. But when the Bulgarian embarrassment has passed away his union of two Offices may have a better vindication than it has yet been able to arrive at.

There is one further reason—and it seems to me conclusive—for immediate action to finish the anomalous position in Bulgaria, either by a Conference or any other method which appears more rapid or more feasible. It is the instability of Governments—however prudent and however gifted—which, like the pre- sent one, have not elsewhere an absolute majority. No doubt, according to the opinion of to-day, the Government is tolerably settled. But few thought in January, 1886, that the noble Marquess was to be so suddenly outvoted. A few months before he had assured us that his Ministry was likely to endure, although he claimed at first no other merit for it. Let us suppose a Government established—I do not point to individuals—which in consequence of past transactions was even thought to have a Russian bias. Russia would be then unduly and unavoidably excited into schemes of action on the Eastern Question which a Conference must limit. She would not, therefore, go into a Conference. But Germany and Austria, whose position is now defined and satisfactory, must soon, in that event, be led into a new one. They may be ready to oppose themselves to Russia; but it does not follow that they are ready to oppose themselves to Russia and Great Britain both together. It is a formidable union for them to contemplate, despotism leaning upon freedom, the greatest naval and the greatest military Power drawn into alignment. But what is the effect at Constantinople of the occurrence to be dreaded? The Porte, deprived of all encouragement the British Embassy can give, is forced to listen to whatever counsels the Russian Embassy may urge upon it.

It will be, at least, apparent that there is no desire upon my part to elicit information from the Government which they have objects in concealing. Whether they have joined in any recent combination for guarding European peace is not the question now before us. It may be left, indeed, to other men and other places. I do not wish to probe the secrets of the Government, although, if the train of reasoning which I have briefly urged is just, I should be glad to think it might contribute to their policy.

Address for further Papers on the late events in European Turkey.—(The Lord Stratheden and Campbell.)


With reference to the Motion which the noble Lord has laid before the House, I have only to say that, so far as my recollection goes, we have not laid Bulgarian Papers on the Table because we do not possess any of sufficient interest to justify such a course. But if the noble Lord has any curiosity to see them I will have them looked into to see whether there are any which can be presented, and, if so, I shall have great pleasure in laying them on the Table of the House. With reference to the remarks of the noble Lord, he will not expect me to go at any length into the subject which at this particular moment is occupying a great deal of attention at the Courts of Europe, and which, therefore, I cannot with propriety deal with in detail. But I will say that I think is is a little unfair to the Bulgarians to apply Prince Bismarck's remark at the Congress at Berlin to their present condition. I think it is hardly fair to say that it is their doing that their institutions do not work. On the whole, their institutions are working in a sort of way, and if there are any defects—if there are defects in legality—and we believe there are, I do not think that the fault lies entirely or exclusively with them. The real difficulty is a very simple one. The Congress of Berlin, following the uniform, and, I think, the quite invariable, custom of all diplomatic instruments, provides that the consent of Europe to elections which require that consent shall be given unanimously by all the Powers. It requires no great knowledge of public affairs to know that that unanimous consent will always be forthcoming where there is no difficulty; but where there is a difficulty unanimous consent is a very hard thing to obtain, especially where you have seven consents to bring together. The inference I should rather draw is that any efforts to conduct an administration by the help of what is called the concert of Europe are always apt to break down on the application of that diplomatic rule. Where there are a number of people whose resolution it is important to obtain, you can only obtain it, as a matter of certainty, by applying the principle of the majority, and if you cannot apply that principle in its widest extent it is wiser not to require their consent. The only other remark which I will notice in the speech of the noble Lord is that in which he said that matters are in a position which make a Conference desirable. I do not traverse that suggestion. A Conference is not a thing in itself undesirable or to which I have any reason to take objection; but I think that, in considering the advantages of a Conference, you must distinguish between different kinds of Conferences. Such a Conference as that which has been going on at Washington is, as we know, capable of leading to an agreement. There are at most only three, and, properly speaking, only two, persons whose consent has to be obtained, and, no doubt, discussion in that Conference is very favourable to an adjustment of the differences between the Powers. Such Conferences may be generally resorted to with considerable confidence. But Conferences where a large number of Powers have to meet, as far as my knowledge and experience goes, very seldom come to a satisfactory result unless a number of Powers agree beforehand on what the main result of their deliberations is to be. Therefore, I do not think, until that state of things exists, with reference to any matters which may be in controversy, that a Conference is desirable. There is another thing to be said about a Conference, that where there is any real danger of formidable disagreement, so solemn a measure, if it does not succeed, is rather apt to accentuate and increase the difficulties and to make the danger greater than it was before. Therefore, it should be adopted with some hesitation if there is not a prospect—a sure prospect—of success. Looking from the present standpoint, I do not think that we can describe the present difficulty in respect to Bulgaria as one which involves in itself any immediate danger. I hope that the ordinary interchange of opinion among the various States of Europe by the ordinary channels of diplomatic intercourse will enable us to overcome any difference of opinion that may exist, and I heartily subscribe to the opinion expressed by the Chancellor of Germany in his recent great speech that, on so small a matter as the Government of Bulgaria, it would be a disgrace to Europe if ever it should plunge it into war.

Address agreed to.