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THE problem of the Scheldt was first posed when the Dutch, successful in their long struggle with their Spanish master, gained not merely the recognition of their independence but the right to close the Scheldt (1648). The latter right was the more perfectly guaranteed to them since at the same time their sovereignty was confirmed over lands on the left as well as the right bank of the river. These provisions were made in order that the merchants of the Dutch ports might prosper while "grass grew in the streets of Antwerp." No alteration of this arrangement was made until the days of the French Revolution, despite the transfer of the remaining Spanish provinces (now Belgium) to Austria in 1713. In 1792, however, those same Austrian provinces, already overrun by French armies, were annexed to the young Republic and the river opened. This action by France helped draw England into the coalition against her. But despite the downfall of Napoleon's Empire the river remained open, though the Treaties of Vienna in 1815 united the southern provinces with the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
This disregard of the principle of nationality bore fruit in the shape of the Belgian Revolution of 1830. The results of the revolution were finally formulated nine years later, when the status of the new Kingdom of Belgium and of the Scheldt were defined by the three treaties of London -- one between the Great Powers (Great Britain, Austria, France, Russia and Prussia) and Belgium, another between the same Powers and the Netherlands, and yet a third whose signatories represented Belgium on the one hand and the Netherlands on the other. It was provided that the Kingdom of Belgium should constitute "an independent and perpetually neutral state." As regards the Scheldt, a joint commission was given control of pilotage and of the buoying of the channel below Antwerp, though its powers were so loosely defined that in later years they became the subject of reiterated complaints on the part of Belgium. In addition, the treaties stipulated that the use of the canals traversing Belgium and the Netherlands should be free and common to the inhabitants of both, that the control of the waters of the two Flanders (Dutch and Belgian) should be under joint regulation, and that in case Belgium should build a new canal to the Meuse the Netherlands should continue it, at the cost of Belgium, to the frontiers of Germany. This last obligation Belgium acknowledged that her neighbor had fulfilled in 1873.
Friction developed periodically between the two countries over the régime provided for the Scheldt, and became the more intense when Belgium advanced a claim to the Wielingen Channel, the best approach to the Scheldt from the sea, on the ground that a portion of its length lay within the three mile limit off the Belgian coast. In spite of friction, however, Antwerp developed into one of the greater European ports.
In 1919 the treaties of eighty years previous were altered by the recognition of Belgium as a fully sovereign state, on the part both of the Allied Powers and of their late opponents. It was naturally desirable that the other party to the earlier treaties, i.e., the Netherlands, should do the same, and negotiations were begun to that end. They were protracted until 1925, owing to the effort to include a settlement of other matters, notably those relating to the Scheldt, and to the insurmountable difficulty presented by Belgium's demand for the acceptance of her view concerning the Wielingen. Only when Belgium consented to omit that question from the discussion was a treaty framed and signed by Dutch and Belgian representatives. This was on April 3, 1925.
This instrument abrogated those Articles of the Belgo - Dutch treaty of 1839 which established the neutrality of Belgium, and provided for a series of joint commissions to regulate the flow of waters in the two Flanders, to keep the Ghent-Terneuzen canal abreast of the demands of modern navigation, and above all to direct the improvement of the Scheldt channels. In addition, the Netherlands were pledged to maintain the existing Walcheren and Zuid Beveland canals, and to improve the Liege-Maestricht canal and part of that from Maestricht to Bois le Duc (Hertzogenbush) in such manner as to allow the use of 1,000 ton boats. Belgium was similarly bound to allow the construction of a canal for boats of like tonnage from a point on the Maestricht-Bois le Duc canal between Neeroeteren and Bocholt to the Meuse near Maesbracht. Furthermore, the Netherlands agreed to the construction of two large canals. One would join Antwerp with the Rhine near Ruhrort, crossing the Meuse near Venlo, and the other unite the great Belgian port with the Hollandsch Diep near Moerdijk. Joint commissions were again provided to draw up plans both for improvements and new construction. Finally, new arrangements were made relative to pilotage and customs duties on navigable waters.
Such a treaty was manifestly to the advantage of Belgium and lacking in reciprocal advantages for the Netherlands, especially as the latter government was to bear the cost of the new canals built in its territory. Naturally the treaty was speedily ratified in the Belgian Chambers. In the Dutch Second Chamber it likewise secured ratification, though by the narrow margin of three votes. This was on November 11, 1926. Between that date and its rejection by the First Chamber on March 24, 1927, Dutch opposition to the treaty developed in such fashion that it was easy to prophesy the adverse vote of 33-17 which was then recorded. The old rivalry between Rotterdam and Antwerp was revived, with the more cause because of the increasing value of the commercial prize at stake, for it was feared that the new canals would engross the traffic of the Ruhr and Alsace-Lorraine and divert the coal of Dutch Limburg to the benefit of Rotterdam's rival. It was further argued that the projected régime for the Scheldt would involve the surrender of Dutch sovereignty, and the financial provisions of the treaty were subjected to a violent attack. In vain did Jonkeer van Karnebeek, Dutch Minister for Foreign Affairs, argue for the treaty on the ground that it would lead to "a closer understanding with Belgium," and seek to assure his compatriots that the economic position of Rotterdam was impregnable, the more so since in the two decades that would probably elapse before the new canals were in operation the production of the hinterland was sure to increase greatly. In vain, too, did he seek to allay fears concerning the sacrifice of sovereignty and the use of the Scheldt by Belgian warships in time of hostilities. He received the support of a former Prime Minister, but their joint efforts were fruitless.
As a result of the adverse vote Jonkeer van Karnebeek immediately resigned. The Belgian Cabinet met hurriedly and declared its resolve to press for a revision of the Treaties of 1839 "to assure the success of the essential claims of Belgium, principally in regard to her connections with the sea and with the Rhine." In such determination they have the support of the Belgian press, including the Socialist papers. At the time, moreover, the Belgian Foreign Minister seemed to favor an appeal to the Great Powers on the ground that the three Treaties of 1839 formed an integral whole. Such action would appear to have small chance for success since it was on the recommendation of the Supreme Council that the matter was made the subject of direct negotiation in 1919, and since all Dutch parties agree that direct negotiation should be opened on a new basis. Arbitration or reference to the International Court of Justice was rejected by Belgium during the controversy over the Wielingen Channel and a similar proposal now would probably meet the same fate. But some method of procedure must be found. The questions at issue are not dead. Their equitable settlement is an obligation resting upon the two governments concerned.