On 7 January 1935, the Franco-Italian Agreements were signed in Rome by the French foreign minister Pierre Laval and the Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini. The diplomatic offensive intended to contain Hitler’s Germany by a network of alliances, namely by using colonial territories – including Eritrea, Tunisia and Ethiopia – as pawns in European negotiations. In this unsigned piece, a New Statesman correspondent described the pact as “little more than another pious aspiration”. Most importantly, it left Mussolini with “a tolerably good bag of gains” – concessions for which the French hoped for Italian support against German aggression. This did not occur.
The news from Rome this week is certainly encouraging, though it hardly warrants the dithyrambs with which it has been hailed in some quarters. Signor Mussolini himself on Monday night uttered a warning against exaggerated optimism. The agreement signed by him and M Laval falls far short, as we predicted it would, of what was originally proposed or hoped for. On its European side, indeed, this pact looks to be little more than another pious aspiration. It registers the intention of France and Italy to consult together in the event of a threat to Austria’s independence. That, incidentally, and more than that, they were already pledged to do under the Covenant of the League, and again by their joint declaration, in which Great Britain also was associated, last year.
Besides this, the central European States are to be recommended to conclude a mutual pact of non-interference with each other’s territories and political or social regime. Italy, Germany, Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Jugoslavia will be expected to sign this in the first instance, and thereafter it will be open to France, Poland and Romania to come in. Here, it seems, are all or most of the component parts of the original plan. But they do not stick, and may never stick, together. Germany’s reactions are still uncertain, and so are those of other states whose adherence is important, if not essential.
The African settlement is more definite, since there the two principals were not hampered by anything more serious than questions of morality and the rights of black men. Italy has not got all she demanded; but Mussolini, we are told, has been content to make sacrifices in the cause of peace. The sacrifices, however, leave him with a tolerably good bag of gains.
The privileged status of Italian nationals in Tunisia is to be continued for a number of years. Italy will acquire a large piece of the Sahara to the south of Libya, as well as a slice off French Somaliland, with an unspecified number of native inhabitants. (No bother about a plebiscite, of course, for that change of masters!) She will also be permitted to buy two thousand or more shares in the Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway, which will give her a substantial, though not a controlling, interest in the line. All this is no doubt highly satisfactory from the point of view of improving Franco-Italian relations.
As to what results it may have, in the long run as well as the short, in Africa and in Europe, for blacks and for whites, opinions are likely to differ. Is that block of railway hares, for example, the beginning of the end of Ethiopian independence? Would the subjugation of the Abyssinians be such a simple matter as some seem to think?
Our own imperialist pundits, of course, are perfectly happy. Since Great Britain has ample territory of her own in Africa, we should not grudge a little – or a lot – more to our European friends. Italy, as the Daily Mail informs us, “is perfectly fitted to play in Abyssinia the part which Japan is playing in Manchukuo”. She does not threaten any British interest, and “our statesmen will be quite content to see her controlling the Upper Nile waters”. The Daily Express agrees with this, but adds that “it will be important for Britain to stay in the Sudan and not yield it to Egypt, as some Egyptians would like. For Italy would do what he pleased in Egypt.” Would she? Perhaps she would try; but Egypt, as we have found ourselves, is not an altogether easy nut to crack.
But let us leave these African speculations and come back to Europe, where bigger and more immediate issues are involved. It is plain that this nebulous pact of Rome is in itself no guarantee of peace. But taken as a symbol of the rapprochement of Italy and France, and judged by its possible or probable effects on the whole European situation, it is of the first importance. The two chief Latin Powers have long been at loggerheads. Their antagonism in the Mediterranean, as we have learned at naval conferences, has shown that water can be thicker than blood. Their policy on armaments, on treaty revision, on most of the continental problems that have vexed us year in and year out, have diverged or clashed. They have headed or supported factions – France as the champion of the sated powers, Italy of the discontented. Now they have kissed and made it up, and though they do not pretend to see eye to eye on every point, they propose to act in unison in the attempt to introduce order into the European bear garden. For this change of heart it is, of course, Herr Hitler who is chiefly to be thanked. As the architect of fascism in Germany he had a natural claim on the patronage of Mussolini, and so long as German foreign policy suited Italian, he could count on friendship and support from Rome. But the Nazi threat to Austria was – and is, for it still remains, though suspended for the moment – a threat to Italy. The protégé has become a naughty boy – and dangerously naughty.
[See also: From the NS archive: The Van Meegeren affair]
The agreement with France is not, however, merely an anti-German move. Its professed aim is to bring Germany inside the pale again. On the face of it it offers no new inducements to the Germans; and the clause dealing with armaments looks, as it stands, like another warning to them. But in fact it is generally and confidently assumed that what France and Italy have in mind is a reopening of the Disarmament Conference – and in that they will certainly have the warm backing of this country as well as of most other members of the League. This would clearly be useless except on one condition – that the German claim to equality is to be satisfied. On that point the Italian and British policies have long been in agreement; German rearmament should be treated as a fait accompli, and all our efforts should be directed to keeping it within bounds and making it as innocuous as possible. It is the French who have been intransigent.
Now at last, it seems, there is a change of mind in France. M. Doumergue was as obstinate as he was stupid in this matter; M. Flandin will, it is expected, approach it more realistically. The French, like many other people, may continue to scoff at the peaceful professions of Hitler and his lieutenants; but they can hardly fail to see in their agreement with Italy a weightly addition to their security. It would be rash, no doubt, in present circumstances to expect anything better than a limitation and control of armaments; nothing more, apparently, is desired by Mussolini. Even that, however, if it could be achieved, would be in itself an immense gain. It would be no sure guarantee of peace; it would not settle the problems of treaty revision which must be squarely faced sooner or later. But it would presumably bring Germany back to the League of Nations, and prepare the way in a calmer atmosphere for measures of genuine disarmament and reconciliation.
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