THE HAGUE - On Tuesday, April 6, the Dutch Senate debated with Undersecretary Knops of the Interior and Kingdom Relations about the government's policy with regard to relations with the countries and municipalities in the Caribbean part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The basis for the debate is formed by the budget statements of Kingdom Relations and the BES-fund 2021 (BES= Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba). On Tuesday, April 13, the House will vote on a motion submitted during the debate by Senator Rosenmöller (GroenLinks) calling on the new cabinet to give greater priority to Kingdom relations by intensifying the Dutch efforts in order to improve the relations concretely and sustainably.
The senators raised many different topics in the policy debate, with the relationship between the Netherlands and the other three countries of the Kingdom (Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten) and the BES municipalities forming the common thread. That relationship is currently under pressure for many reasons. Among other things, the growing inequality, the major impact of the corona crisis on both health care and the economy of the islands, as well as the conditions that the Netherlands has set for financial support, the Dispute Settlement and the COHO Act (Caribbean body for reform and development) which was recently presented by the cabinet to the Council of State and the still major consequences of hurricane Irma that raged over Sint Maarten in September 2017.
Policy debate status
Since October 10, 2010, the Kingdom of the Netherlands consists of four countries - Aruba, Curaçao, Sint Maarten and the Netherlands. Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba (BES) are municipalities that together form the Caribbean part of the Netherlands. The political relationship between the Netherlands, Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten is regulated in the Charter for the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
The Senate sometimes treats budget proposals differently from other bills. Budget proposals are then accepted as rubber stamps if the discussion cannot be completed before a certain date. The policy debate will then only take place later. This gives the Senate the opportunity, even if the budget proposal has already been adopted, to discuss the policy of the relevant ministry with the government.
On December 15, 2020, the Senate dismissed the budget statements Kingdom Relations and the BES fund 2021 as rubber stamp. The faction of the PvdD has made a note. This means that this faction is considered to have voted against.
Impression of the debate
GroenLinks senator Rosenmöller stated that the relationship between the Netherlands and the Caribbean part of the Kingdom is about trust and not mistrust. He asked the Undersecretary why he attacked autonomy in the summer of 2020 when they imposed heavy conditions on financial aid to the three countries. He also asked whether the Undersecretary could give an overview of what has been provided in loans per country. "We call this support solidarity, but it is also self-serving," said Rosenmöller. The way in which the agreements about the country packages were reached is not good: "The policy of swallowing or choking does not fit in our Kingdom. The tone was too harsh." At the moment 20% to 25% of the population is dependent on food packages from the Netherlands. Real income is too low on the BES islands, according to Rosenmöller. He asked the Undersecretary whether he agreed that too little has been achieved in creating a social minimum. Finally, he wanted to know what the Undersecretary thought of the Council of State's criticism of the Dispute Settlement.
SP senator Gerkens expressed her concerns about the corona figures. According to her, the situation on all islands is dramatic, regarding corona, but also political and economic. Eleven years ago it was really better, says Gerkens. She asked the Undersecretary to reflect on the administrative relationships that are still struggling. Gerkens also looked at the Netherlands: "Not everything is in order here either, of course. The question is whether we should get involved, isn't that up to the countries themselves?" Thanks to the Statute, the Netherlands is responsible for an 'unclear laundry list', says Gerkens. That is undesirable for the SP. According to her, the way forward is a different approach: together with all residents, not only from the countries, but also from the municipalities. According to Gerkens, it is important that the dispute settlement comes into effect as quickly as possible. The bill to this end does not deserve a beauty prize, but pragmatics is now necessary, says Gerkens.
Senator Beukering (Nanninga Faction) said he values good relations and balance between the countries and in the region. The islands have been hit hard by the corona virus. Beukering: "People get to know their friends in difficult times. What will be of great importance in the future is to get out of this crisis together." He pointed out that the islands themselves have already made plans for the period after the crisis, but that a lot of money is needed for this. Beukering advocated a 5D model: dream, think, dare, do and persevere. His faction's dream is one of togetherness, thinking is making plans. The islands have already come a long way with that, according to Beukering. Daring will have to be fulfilled by the politicians of the countries, but also by the business community. The Nanninga party sees opportunities for financing at Invest International (in formation). Ownership of all parties involved is important, says Beukering: "We will all, together with the business community, have to put our shoulders to the wheel to get out of this crisis."
PvdA senator Recourt also considered the consequences of the corona crisis for the islands: "The islands have been hit unprecedentedly hard by covid-19." According to Recourt, the Kingdom is currently determined by differences and not by similarities; corona has magnified those differences. According to him, it seems that the Netherlands has imposed its entire wish list regarding the islands as conditions for the financial support. According to Recourt, eleven years after the entry into force of the new constitutional relations, we see that the relations between the countries need reform. He suggested sitting around the table with all the Caribbean islands to see what needs to be done to bridge the differences. Recourt made a concrete proposal. According to him, the fraught past plays a role implicitly and explicitly up to the present day: "Let's investigate what obstacles there are that stem from the colonial past." According to Recourt, this investigation is best carried out by a person not involved in the colonial past. Such research has never been done before. It makes the elephant in the room visible and can improve relations between the countries, Recourt said. He asked whether the Undersecretary is willing to prepare and finance such an investigation.
According to D66 senator Dittrich, the countries themselves also yearn for good, solid governance. D66 thinks it is logical that Dutch tax money should be spent on this. Quality standards must be met, and agreements made must be observed, also by the Netherlands, Dittrich stated. His faction thinks it is important to come out together with the three countries. He wanted to know how the Undersecretary views the process surrounding the COHO proposals (which came out prematurely - ed.) And the associated country packages. According to him, the three countries in the Caribbean Netherlands seem to regard this as an attack and as a dictation. Dittrich wanted to know about the dispute settlement when the parliament will receive an answer to the questions posed by the parliamentary standing committee for Kingdom Relations. According to Dittrich, the corona crisis has painfully exposed the need for more diversity in the economy in addition to tourism. He wanted to know from the Undersecretary how he sees the economic future of the countries and the Caribbean Netherlands. Dittrich understood that a major conference between the four countries is on the way. He called on the cabinet not only to talk about administrative change there, but also about cultural diversity.
CDA senator Oomen-Ruijten also considered the corona crisis 'which is on top of the crisis that has already hit the islands'. Despite everything, the Netherlands still does a lot in the area, she says. The islands' economies are particularly dependent on tourism. Giving poverty and food aid is one thing, but when there is poverty there are also other problems, according to Oomen, such as insufficient care for children and increasing crime among young people. According to Oomen, extra support measures are needed to get the economy back on track. When the corona virus disrupted the islands, the Netherlands stepped in 'and that's how it should be', says Oomen. Within the Kingdom we must show solidarity, she stated. She admires the way the Undersecretary has tried to push through. He is also aiming for more responsibility for the democracies there and that is necessary, according to Oomen. It is good that work is being done to reduce poverty and increase the social minimum. Now something still needs to be done about the earning capacity of the islanders, according to Oomen: "This requires reform. Because the ultimate aim of all of us is real autonomy."
VVD senator Van der Burg stated that the agreed reforms must be complied with, but that the countries are about themselves, the Netherlands is not about that. He agrees with the previous speakers that more focus is needed on kingdom relations. About the current situation of corona in Curaçao, Van der Burg said that it is good that the other countries in the Kingdom show solidarity. The consequences of the corona crisis are major, both in the short term and in the long term. He called on the Undersecretary to look carefully at how the Netherlands can help other countries in this regard. Van der Burg asked the Undersecretary for an assessment of the situation on St. Eustatius, three years after the intervention there.
According to SGP senator Schalk, the Netherlands must be very modest given the chaos that has arisen in the European part of the Kingdom after the recent parliamentary elections. Schalk said it was difficult to find a policy debate about the other parts of the kingdom in that situation. He asked the Undersecretary to indicate how he works on a good balance between not too much interference and financial support. Schalk would like to apply a threefold approach: stabilize, normalize, and democratize. He asked how the Undersecretary currently indicates the situation based on this threefold approach. Schalk concluded his contribution by saying that it would be good 'if the disagreements about the dispute settlement could finally be settled'.
PvdD senator Nicolaï expressed his surprise at how Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten were put under pressure in the summer of 2020. He raised the issue of legality: the countries were told this summer that support would only come if they would amend laws they had passed themselves. According to Nicolai, a cross was forcibly placed under an agreement whereby representatives of the people had to amend their laws. "We don't have the right to impose our wish on the Aruban legislator, do we?" said Nicolai. He also wanted to know why the Undersecretary came up with the COHO proposal: "Those who hold the statutory principles high will not come up with the COHO proposal, it is a form of power play." According to Nicolaï, such a power play normally takes place between states, but it concerns four countries that together form a state. He asked if the Undersecretary could explain the direct connection between pledging help and setting conditions.
According to OSF senator Raven, this debate is too comprehensive, too late, and too distant. "With all the problems that already exist, there is also a caretaker cabinet and the recent resignation of the government commissioner on St. Eustatius Marnix van Rij," said Raven. He wanted to know about the liquidity of Sint Maarten: "What is their status when it comes to attracting own loans and own capital?" Raven got the feeling that in many places the dike is leaking and that the holes must be closed again quickly. OSF is in favor of parliament taking action this year and taking decisions to set out guidelines so that the Caribbean part of the Kingdom comes out of the crisis.
Response of the Undersecretary
In his response, Undersecretary Knops elaborated on the situation in the summer of 2020. He explained that the Netherlands has said to the countries: "We are happy to take this process with you, but under certain conditions." According to Knops, these conditions are intended to improve the situation in the countries, such as combating poverty. He could imagine that some politicians were grumpy about this, but said he had done it in the interest of the islanders. According to Knops, reform was not only the wish of the Dutch government, but also of the other governments in the Kingdom. Finally, Knops said that he would recommend the new cabinet to anchor kingdom policy more firmly in the various ministries and not just with the minister who will manage kingdom relations.