HL Deb 28 July 1921 vol 43 cc81-4

LORD COZENS-HARDY had given Notice to ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he is aware that the continuation by the Serb-Croat-Slovene Government of the sequestration of the property of the Central European Mines, Limited, an English company owning valuable lead mines in Slovenia, is discouraging the investment of British capital in that country and any commercial dealings with it; whether the continuation of such sequestration is not contrary to the provisions of the Treaty of Peace with Austria; whether His Majesty's Government have yet received any satisfactory answer to their representations in Belgrade on this subject; and if not, what steps His Majesty's Government propose to take to secure that British rights are respected in the Serb-Croat-Slovene kingdom.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in asking the, Question which stands in my name perhaps your Lordships will allow me to state what the facts are—they are quite short—which have given rise to a condition of things that I think your Lordships will agree is unfortunate as between two friendly and Allied Powers. An English company are the proprietors of certain valuable lead mines in the Mezica Valley in Slovenia. Formerly, it was part of the Austrian Empire; now, it is part of the Serb-Croat-Slovene kingdom. A sequestrator was put in by the Serbs when they went into military occupation in 1918; that sequestrator has remained in possession ever since, and is still there. His remaining in possession is apparently contrary to the provisions of the Peace Treaty between Austria and the Serb-Croat-Slovene kingdom, and, in fact, the head of their Treaty Department has, in a written report to the Serbian Prime Minister, expressed his opinion that the sequestrator's continuation there is contrary to those provisions.

The matter, however, does not rest there, because the local officials—whether of the local authority who, with a certain amount of local autonomy, govern Slovenia, or of the central authority I do not know—are making, so I am informed, these statements. They are telling the miners at Mezica that the conditions and fate of the British miners are of the darkest, and they have pointed out to them that the wages at Mezica would be reduced at once in the same way as they have recently been reduced in England—they were also told that they would eventually be certain of dismissal—if the English got the property.

I notice that in a local paper the following statement, a translation of which has been given to me, appeared under date, July 21: Much has been written about the Mezica property lately in a more or less serious manner and to the point, but always with the intention of drawing the attention of the public and the Government circles to the exceptional importance and to the richness of this mine, which i, in the Corinthian part of our State frontier. The importance from an economical point of view, and the importance for national economics, of the whole of this valuable valley has already been previously pointed out. Then, after referring to certain other properties in the neighbourhood, the paper goes on to say:— We therefore call upon all the public leaders for the second time, asking them to do their best to get the properties nationalised, and also to prevent our powerful English Allies from becoming possessors. It is obvious that these circumstances can only have had, as, in fact, they have had, a discouraging effect on the trade relations between this country and that country.

I noticed last week statements in one newspaper suggesting that it would be most undesirable that any English capital should be invested in that country; and in another newspaper there was a letter from someone who Signed himself "A sufferer from Jugo-Slavian methods." I know, of my own knowledge, that in one particular case quite recently—because, of course, the facts that I have mentioned to your Lordships are now well-known in England—a particularly valuable business matter in connection with wood, which would have been most acceptable and profitable to British interests, was declined solely on the ground of the attitude apparently taken up by the Serb-Croat-Slovene kingdom towards British interests in that country. To say the least this apparent attitude is a little ungracious towards this country at any rate, because we had a great deal to do with the Serbian Relief Expedition, and I believe, even now, the advances that we have made to Serbia are not yet paid to the amount of over £20,000,000. I believe, too, that over £1,000,000 has been advanced to the Serb-Croat-Slovene Kingdom for relief generally, and has not yet been paid. These are the facts.

It appears, from a certain answer given in another place during last month, that His Majesty's Government have intervened in the sense of making representations at Belgrade, but those representations do not appear at present to have met with success. I think your Lordships will agree that it is most unfortunate that this state of feeling should continue, and that British rights should be, as they apparently are, disregarded in this way. If His Majesty's Government have not vet had any satisfactory answer to their representations I think we are entitled to know what steps the Government propose to take to see that due regard is paid to these rights, and that the unfortunate state of circumstances and feeling which apparently now exist are put an end to at the earliest possible moment. I beg to ask the Question standing in my name.


My Lords, my noble friend, the Leader of the House, has asked me to read on his behalf the reply which he has drawn up himself to Lord Cozens-Hardy's Question:

My attention has already been drawn to the affairs of the company in which the noble Lord is interested. I understand that these mines were an ex-enemy undertaking situated in former Austrian territory and were already under sequester by the Jugo-Slav authorities at the time when the noble Lord and his friends acquired them. Originally, I am informed, only some ten per cent. of the shares were held by British holders, the balance remaining in Austrian hands. It was thus at first somewhat difficult to convince the Serb-Croat-Slovene Government that the company wasbona fideBritish in character, since even in this country a company which is ninety per cent. enemy-owned is not allowed to operate. More recently, however, the British interest in the company has, so I am informed, been considerably increased.

So long ago as April last His Majesty's Minister at Belgrade was instructed to afford to the representatives of the company all possible assistance in their negotiations with the Serb-Croat-Slovene Government. These negotiations were protracted and fruitless, and in June last the British representative in Belgrade was instructed by telegraph to make the strongest representations to the Serb-Croat-Slovene Government and to point out that the maintenance of this sequester was contrary to Article 267 of the Treaty of St. Germain.

It appears that the arguments on which the Serb-Croat-Slovene Government rely to justify their action are two in number. On the one hand, while admitting that the maintenance of the sequester is contrary to Article 267 of the Treaty, they contend that it is a reprisal against the Austrian Government for the retention by them, also in defiance of the Treaty, of certain Serb-Croat-Slovene assets in Austria. Negotiations are proceeding between the Serb-Croat-Slovene and Austrian Governments for an arrangement in regard to these assets, but the former do not wish meanwhile to surrender the only means of pressure which they possess for inducing Austria to execute the Treaty in this respect.

In the second place, the Serb-Croat-Slovene Government are likely to contend that Article 267, both in the spirit and the letter, applies only to Austrian property and not to Allied property. They may point out that it is illogical for His Majesty's Government to claim that the company is British and not Austrian, and at the same time to invoke in its defence an Article of the Treaty which applies only to ex-enemy interests in Jugo-Slavia. These two arguments are of a technical and legal nature, and I do not intend to embark upon a discussion of their validity. I can, however, assure the noble Lord that friendly discussion is proceeding with the Serb-Croat-Slovene Government in the matter, and a satisfactory solution will, I trust, be eventually secured.

I noted Lord Cozens-Hardy's remarks about the investment of British capital in Jugo-Slavia, but I fear that it is not possible for me to express any opinion as to how far the difficulties which the noble Lord has experienced in Jugo-Slavia may have discouraged other British commercial ventures in that country. I trust, however, that the statement which I have made will furnish a sufficient answer to the other specific points raised in the noble Lord's Question.