AMSTERDAM--St. Maarten Justice Minister Dennis Richardson surprised everyone at the debate on the future of the Dutch Kingdom of de Volkskrant newspaper in Amsterdam on Sunday by stating that he had no objections to looser ties with the Netherlands, possibly in a commonwealth structure.
"A commonwealth construction is not a strange thought," said Richardson in a debate with Dutch Minister of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations Ronald Plasterk and Caribbean history Professor Gert Oostindie.
However, Richardson added, his commonwealth idea should not be compared to the proposal that Members of Parliament of the Second Chamber André Bosman of the liberal democratic VVD party and Ronald van Raak of the Socialist Party (SP) presented just before the summer.
Richardson spoke of a "conditioned commonwealth construction" whereby St. Maarten for example would be free to close a deal with the United States of America to jointly combat crime if the Dutch Government refused to help.
The Justice Minister said it could not be that The Hague walked away from its responsibilities to assist in keeping St. Maarten and its surrounding waters safe from drug smuggling and human trafficking, leaving a small country like St. Maarten to fight this battle on its own.
Minister Plasterk was highly surprised by Richardson's commonwealth statement. "I am hearing this for the first time." He warned that the commonwealth process was not without risks as the Netherlands could at one point in the future say that it would let go of St. Maarten. Richardson replied that taking risks was part of life.
Prof. Oostindie reasoned that the entire issue on independence or a commonwealth status should be "off the table," because that is not what the people on the islands of the former Netherlands Antilles want. "There is no doubt about the people wanting to get out of the Kingdom," he said.
The new constitutional relations that went into effect on October 10, 2010 whereby Curaçao and St. Maarten attained the status of Country within the Kingdom and Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba became public entities of the Netherlands have been somewhat disappointing for many. But that does not mean, however, that the islands want to exit the Kingdom. He said there were many advantages to be had as a former colony.
During the debate Minister Richardson several times ventilated his discontent about the recent decision of the Kingdom Council of Ministers to order an independent integrity audit of St. Maarten's Government. According to the St. Maarten Government, the Council wrongly used article 51 of the Regulation of the Governor to give Governor Eugene Holiday an instruction to facilitate this audit.
Richardson repeatedly said that St. Maarten did not have a problem with an integrity audit. He said government also found it important to take a good look at the level of integrity. "We need an investigation to clear our name or to tackle wrongdoings if there are any. We need clarity: is corruption rampant or is it just an occasional incident?" he said.
St. Maarten had proposed to carry out an integrity audit together with the Netherlands. However, the Kingdom Council refused. Plasterk said, as he has done on earlier occasions, that it was imperative to have an independent audit, meaning an investigation without an active role for the St. Maarten Government. He said he supported cooperating with Philipsburg on this matter. But, he added, "The Governor has to be in charge. That is our prerequisite."
Richardson was highly critical of the attitude of the Second Chamber where it came to St. Maarten. He said St. Maarten refused to be the sacrificial lamb for local Dutch political consumption and the interest of certain Members of Parliament. "What does the Netherlands want? Does it want us to go or stay?"
According to Richardson, St. Maarten's image in The Hague was influenced by "perception and one-liners." He said cooperation should be the key in the relations with the Netherlands, and not "suppression" by The Hague.
The recent advice of St. Maarten's Social Economic Council to get out of the monetary union with Curaçao and to dollarize also came up during Sunday's debate. Richardson said this was not a matter of taking revenge on Curaçao for the years of neglect when St. Maarten was still part of the Netherlands Antilles. "It is simply surviving. Curaçao is causing the deficit on the balance of payments," he said.
Plasterk said that having a joint Central Bank for Curaçao and St. Maarten had its advantages. He remarked that being a small country with an own Central Bank posed a threat whereby the Central Bank could become the "pet" of the local government. Having an independent financial supervisory organ was important, he said.
Richardson replied that with a dollarized economy St. Maarten wouldn't need to have a Central Bank, just a supervising entity.
Sunday's debate was led by Volkskrant reporters Remco Meijer and Laura de Jong. Curaçao singer Kris Berry, who spent part of her youth in St. Maarten, gave the event a musical touch. The well-attended event started with a column by former NOS news reader and journalist Noraly Beyer.