THE NEUTRALITY OF BELGIUM
THE TREATIES OF 1870
The profound and particular interest in Belgium as her Continental bulwark which, as outlined in the foregoing chapters, England has manifested ever since the days of Cromwell, is again evidenced by her attitude at the time of the Franco-German conflict of 1870.
It will be remembered that, immediately after the French declaration of war, Prince Bismarck sprung on the world the text of a memorandum which had been handed to him by the French Ambassador, Count Benedetti, in 1866. The said document contained an offer of Emperor Napoleon III to promote Prussian aggrandizement within Germany, in recognition of a number of conditions, one of which was to the effect that Prussia should assist France in the annexation of Belgium and Luxembourg, an offer flatly declined by Prussia.
The publication of this document created an enormous stir in England. British statesmen realized that their supposed best friend, France, had made a very serious attempt at what the British considered their Continental bulwark, and might easily carry out her dangerous designs if luck should favor her in the struggle against Prussia. British sentiment was turned against France which was, of course, the very object of Bismarck's diplomacy. And whilst of the other signatory Powers of the Quintuple Treaty neither Austria nor Russia thought it expedient to act, the British Cabinet decided at once to take precautionary measures against any possible change in the status of Belgium.
Evidently Mr. Gladstone, the then Prime-Minister, had not much faith in the binding force of the treaties of 1839. He shared the opinion of his distinguished predecessor, Lord Palmerston, who, speaking before the Commons, on June 8, 1855, said: "I know that obligatory treaties have guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium, but am hardly disposed to attach great importance to declarations of this kind."
Besides, fresh in the memory of Mr. Gladstone and of every European diplomat were the derogatory statements of two prominent English statesmen, Lord Derby and Lord Stanley, with regard to the futility of collective guarantees, made immediately after the establishment of the neutralization of Luxembourg, in 1867(38); it seemed, therefore, all the more important for England to reaffirm before the world that to her the integrity of Belgium was of vital importance.
In consequence, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Granville, approached at once the Cabinets of Berlin and Paris with the request that they state their attitude towards the neutrality of Belgium, and received from both sides the almost identical reply that they would respect it under the condition that it was observed by the other. It might seem as if these assurances should have appeared satisfactory enough to England---inasmuch as she had considered an identical conditional declaration on the part of France perfectly satisfactory in 1914. But not so in 1870. Then the British Cabinet held that those mutual conditional declarations of Prussia and France seemed "to indicate an opinion on their part that the declaration of each is not complete."(39) Therefore, Mr. Gladstone did a very straightforward thing to safeguard British interests: he asked both Prussia and France to conclude separate but identical treaties with England by the terms of which England bound herself to take up arms against either belligerent Power which might first violate Belgium's neutrality.
During the short negotiations which preceded the conclusion of these treaties, the French Ambassador, Marquis de Lavalette, pointed out to Lord Granville that it might be considered that this second instrument (i.e., the then negotiated treaty) might tend to the conclusion that the engagements which it was to confirm were no longer valid and equally binding on all parties concerned.(40)
Similar objections against the conclusion of a special treaty were raised in both Houses of Parliament.(41) However, Mr. Gladstone knew exactly what he wanted and did not waver in the course decided upon to safeguard British interests.
With the greatest possible speed, both treaties were concluded at London, the one between Prussia and England on August 9, 1870, and the other between France and England on the 11th of the same month. Also the ratifications concerning both treaties were duly exchanged at London on August 26th of the same year.
Their texts, as presented to both Houses of the British Parliament, may be found in the Appendix.(42)
The main provision of these treaties which, in a way, are a repetition of the Anglo-French Convention of 1832, when, just as in 1870, England did not consider the general guarantee with regard to the execution of the Twenty-Four Articles strong enough to exclude French ambitions(43)---consists in England's promise to uphold Belgium's neutrality by force of arms, if necessary. They were the strongest possible notification to either belligerent that he would find England's entire forces joined to those of his opponent if he should enter Belgian territory.
It is important to note that, despite the fact that the war was waged between France and the North German Confederation (comprising Prussia and a number of smaller independent states of Northern Germany), in alliance with the independent Kingdoms of Bavaria and Wuerttemberg and the Grand-Duchy of Baden, England concluded that treaty exclusively with Prussia---not with the North German Confederation, although the addition of the clause "in the name of the North German Confederation" to the words "the King of Prussia" might easily have extended the validity of the treaty in that respect, the King of Prussia being, by the Constitution of 1867, head of that union of German states. On the other hand, in the Anglo-French treaty, it is expressly stipulated that England would co-operate with France if, "the armies of the North German Confederation and its Allies" should violate Belgium's neutrality.
Even more noteworthy it is that again it was not Belgium but England which showed such a profound concern in Belgium's neutrality. It is not on record that Belgium was even consulted in this matter. It is sure that she was not admitted to the signature of the two treaties of which she was, in a way, the party most concerned.
The objection of the French Ambassador, mentioned above, that those new treaties might be considered as releasing the guarantors of the "Twenty-Four Articles" from their obligations under the Quintuple Treaty, was met by an insertion of the clause that, at the expiration of the treaties of 1870, the independence and neutrality of Belgium will, so far as the High Contracting Parties are respectively concerned, continue to rest as heretofore on Article I of the Quintuple Treaty of the 19th of April, 1839.
This clause can merely be interpreted as stipulating that, concerning Belgium's independence and neutrality, after the expiration of the treaties of 1870, everything should remain "as heretofore"---a point which will be more fully discussed in a later chapter.(44)
Regarding the term of validity of the two treaties, it was uniformly agreed that they should be binding during the war then in progress and one more calendar year after the ratification of a treaty of peace between the belligerents. In consequence, as the war was concluded by the Peace of Frankfort of May 10, 1871, the two treaties expired in 1872.
It is a matter of history that they fully attained England's object to keep the armies of both France and Germany out of Belgium. For the French army of General MacMahon, hard pressed against the Franco-Belgian frontier in September, 1870---the entrance into Belgium would probably have meant an appreciable relief. However, since, by the terms of the treaties in question, such a move of the French General would automatically have called England into the field as another formidable enemy of France, MacMahon preferred to surrender with his army at Sedan.
The treaties of 1870 having thus rendered great service to the parties interested in the maintenance of Belgium's neutrality, it has been asked, not unnaturally, by England's critics why she failed to propose at once to France and Germany a similar arrangement at the outbreak of the present war.
Chapter Four: Break-Down of Belgium's Neutrality
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