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Indepedence or Intervention? Dutch Chamber Divided Over St Maarten, Aruba & Curacao

Eight governments in ten years had already seen St. Maarten fall when State Secretary Raymond Knops (Kingdom Relations, CDA) boarded the plane last month to visit the island. When he landed a few hours later, the counter was at nine.

Knops does not have to convince anyone that things are not going well in St Maarten. Pessimism dominates in the week that the House of Representatives debated the Caribbean parts of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Kingdom Relations budget. “In the fifteen years that I have been following the islands,” said Ronald van Raak (SP) on Thursday, “I have never been so gloomy.”

On almost all islands it is somehow wrong. After years of administrative chaos, two of the three special municipalities have only a fraction left of their autonomy. Bonaire has been under strict supervision of The Hague for a year now.

Even more serious is the situation on St. Eustatius, where the Dutch government took over the entire board early in 2018. The island, with 3,000 inhabitants, has since been controlled by a government commissioner, without democratic control. Only Saba volcano island receives praise from Knops and Chamber.

In Aruba, Curaçao and St Maarten – the three countries that together form the Kingdom with the Netherlands – the government normally has a little less grip, but there too the problems are numerous.

Curaçao, the largest island, is struggling with unemployment and budget deficits, partly due to the economic and political crisis in Venezuela. Since this summer, the government has also been closely monitoring government finances in Curaçao. Aruba is not much better. The Aruban government is now so fed up with strict financial supervision that it is trying to free itself of Dutch interference.

But the biggest problems are on St. Maarten. There, the chaos that the other islands are experiencing, administratively and economically, has been further exacerbated by the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma in the autumn of 2017 on the island. And so, since last month, due to yet another government crisis. New elections have been postponed to the beginning of January.

Only a small part of the 550 million euros in emergency aid promised by the Dutch government after Irma has been spent. The rest of the amount is waiting – for stable political and reliable governance.

The patterns are the same, they are named and known. Small islands, governments that follow each other quickly and constantly argue with Knops and his predecessors, and the intermingling of the upper and lower world that seeps into politics.

Since the Antilles were abolished as a country on 10 October 2010 and the islands were given a new status (three as an autonomous country within the kingdom, three as a special municipality), the problems have not disappeared. On the contrary, MPs like SP Van der Raak and VVD André Bosman say: “10 -10-10” has actually made the malevolent drivers stronger and the overseas contradictions worse.

All members of the House of Representatives share the ‘major concerns’ of the State Secretary. Never before did they feel so united that it must be done differently, that it really must have ended. But how?

To begin with, taking more distance from the three countries in the kingdom, according to Bosman. He wants the Statute for the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which regulates the responsibilities of the Netherlands and the islands, to be overhauled – otherwise the Netherlands must leave.

No, according to Chris van Dam (CDA), the ties with the islands must be strengthened. The administrative apparatus of the islands is too small for tasks such as law enforcement, he says, leaving that to the central government.

More control or more distance: if someone can get it done, the idea is in The Hague, it’s Knops. In the Chamber he is praised: finally someone who says what it says. If it is up to him, it will certainly not reduce the Hague’s involvement. “Saying that we withdraw is the worst thing we could do, because then we leave Sint-Maarten and the people there to the administrators there.”

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