The constitutional embedding of Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba is one step closer with the recent go-ahead of the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament to amend the Dutch Constitution.
The day before Hurricane Irma struck the Windward Islands, the Second Chamber met in a plenary setting to discuss the law proposal prepared by the Dutch Government to amend the Constitution, giving Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba a constitutional basis and to secure the voting rights of their inhabitants with the Dutch nationality for the First Chamber, the Senate. A week later, on September 12, a vast majority of the Second Chamber approved the law proposal in the second reading of the amendment to the Constitution.
The law proposal secures important rights for the people of the Caribbean Netherlands, including the voting right for the Senate, said Member of the Second Chamber Henk Krol of the 50Plus party. He pleaded for a quick implementation of the amended Constitution to enable residents to vote in the next First Chamber elections in 2019 through the Electoral Council (“Kiescollege”).
Member of Parliament (MP) of the liberal democratic VVD party Sven Koopmans said it was important to have the Electoral Council function efficiently, to limit bureaucracy by combining the Island Council and the Senate elections. He emphasised the importance of ensuring that only persons with the Dutch nationality can vote for the Senate. The debate on September 5 was used by several MPs to voice their concern about the level of facilities in Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba.
“The islands expected to have clarity after the new constitutional relations went into effect. But almost seven years later, there is no clarity about their position, the legislation, while the level of facilities is inadequate,” said MP Liesbeth van Tongeren of the green left party GroenLinks.
“One would have expected more progress in more areas,” said Van Tongeren, expressing disappointment that “nothing” had happened with the report of the evaluation committee headed by former Minister of Kingdom Relations Liesbeth Spies. “It is high time to let the islands know where they stand and to treat everyone equally in the Constitution, no matter in which part of the Netherlands they live.”
Van Tongeren and her colleague Ingrid van Engelshoven of the Democratic Party D66 submitted a motion calling on the Dutch Government to set clear criteria when it is allowed to treat the islands differently where it concerns social facilities.
MP Ronald van Raak of the Socialist Party (SP) expressed his support. However, the motion was not carried by a majority in Parliament.
Van Engelshoven said the islands have been requesting clarity regarding the differentiation in the applying of legislation by the Netherlands due to the islands’ special circumstances. “The people need to know, because it affects their daily life, their income. They need perspective.” She said some Dutch ministries were very active on the islands, while others did little for them. “That creates a sense of ambiguity.”
MP Joba van den Berg of the Christian Democratic Party CDA voiced similar concerns about the differentiation. She also emphasised the urgent need for structural investments in the islands’ infrastructure, initiatives to combat poverty and to give the people an economic perspective.
Van Raak said things have not improved, but rather gotten worse since 2010 with the islands being governed by 10 different ministries in The Hague, each with its own style and input. Poverty has increased and the standard of living decreased. “Hopefully the new Dutch Government will do something about this unacceptable situation,” he said.
Krol of 50Plus spoke of the “many disappointments” with which the residents of the islands have had to deal since 2010. “Increased poverty, a low elderly AOW pension. We have to make this right, keep our promises of seven years ago.” He said he would remind the next Dutch Government of this promise.
Addressing the issue of the islands’ constitutional status in the amended Constitution, caretaker Minister of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations Ronald Plasterk emphasised that this change to the Constitution did not affect the constitutional status of Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba, but that it only determined their position in the Constitution.
He said that naturally the islands remained free to change their constitutional status if they no longer wanted to be a part of the Netherlands as public entities, but this can only take place with a clear mandate of the people. He said the autonomy issue was a “separate discussion,” that it had “nothing to do” with the proposed change to the Constitution.
Plasterk said he wanted to take away the perception that “nothing good had been done for the islands” since 2010. He noted that substantial investments had been made and that the Dutch Government had paid around 10,000 euros per inhabitant in the Caribbean Netherlands. He said it was the task of The Hague to make sure that things got even better and to create more confidence.
An amendment of the Constitution requires approval of two subsequent Parliaments, both First and Second Chambers. The first reading was already concluded more than a year ago. The law proposal in the second reading will now go to the First Chamber where it is also expected to receive broad support. During the plenary meeting on September 5 all MPs mentioned Hurricane Irma, of which it was known that this storm of the severest category, would hit the Windward Islands one day later. They wished the people much strength.
Plasterk stated at that time that the Dutch militaries had been sent ahead to the islands and that assistance would be provided after the storm.
The Daily Herald.