ORANJESTAD – Politicians on Statia feel like they have been ‘insulted’ and are ‘deeply disappointed’ after a visit by state secretary Knops (Kingdom Relations) to the island.
The island does have five duly elected council members, but they can only call meetings and ask questions. The Dutch government has been governing the island since 2018, after a commission reported that the island had been mismanaged for years. Knops travelled to the island this week to see if any progress had been made with his own eyes.
The council had hoped to have a constructive discussion with state secretary Raymond Knops (Kingdom Relations, CDA). They voiced their ‘irritations’ during a unique joint press conference on Wednesday.
‘Reinstate democracy ASAP’
The three fractions believe that the Dutch government is taking ‘way too long’ to implement improvements. The Statians want the local democracy to be ‘reinstated as soon as possible’. “That means that the island council would get its power to nominate officials back and that the island council would get its say on local matters back”, says Leerdam.
According to the Dutch government the island isn’t ready for that yet. A lot of issues have not been resolved such as the laws and regulations, the municipal records, and the finances.
Meeting with Knops ‘disappointing’ and ‘insulting’
The indignation has a lot to do with how the work visit went down. “We heard that the state secretary was coming to the island last week through social media”, according to PLP leader Rechelline Leerdam. “That’s when we also took notice of the fact that he wanted to speak to the fractions separately and not as a group.”
What also caused a lot of consternation was the time the state secretary chose to hold the meetings, at lunchtime (12:30 – 13:30). “We were just standing there, waiting for mister Knops to finish his meal with the individuals at the table”, says independent council member Koos Sneek. “He’s allowed to have lunch with whomever he pleases. But what kind of message does this send to the council members?”
An additional cause for chagrin was the opening of the first roundabout by Knops. “Usually the island council is invited to such events. We weren’t even informed about it.”
“Are we not the highest representatives of Statia? Are we not valued by the Netherlands?”, Clyde van Putten, PLP-big wig, asks himself.
Statian proposal ‘swept from the table’
Koos Sneek described the meeting with Knops as ‘disappointing’. “Our detailed proposal for the complete re-instatement of our democracy was immediately swept from the table, with almost no constructive criticism. He didn’t even bother acknowledging all the hard work that was put in.”
The entrepreneur and born Frisian Koos Sneek has been an active member of the island council on Statia for years. He was the only municipal supporter when the Netherlands intervened in 2018 and took over the governing of the island. But even Sneek is losing faith in the Dutch government. “This is taking too long, longer than needed. We are entering the fourth year in which we don’t have a full-fledged local democracy.”
Revolving door of officials
“Two years after the intervention the government commissioners have been replaced, because they could barely do anything in that time”, according to independent council member Koos Sneek. “We had to start over in 2020.”
Successor Marnix van Rij left the island last month. He sees the issues that have to be solved within his political party, the CDA, as more important and as such he chose to move back to the Netherlands. “This will lead to a further delay. What disappoints me most is that mister Knops did not acknowledge the role he played in creating all those delays”, says Sneek.
Who will be appointed as the third government commissioner on Statia since February 2018? “We’re in the dark about that, because we haven’t gotten any information during the last couple of weeks”, says PLP-leader Rechelline Leerdam.
The current deputy government commissioner, the Statian born and raised Alida Francis, is temporarily in charge. The Statian council members hope that Francis will be the next commissioner. “She knows the island and the work that has to be done.”
“Knops told us that a lot of people applied for the position, but that a so-called highly qualified individual should fill the position”, said Clyde van Putten (PLP). “I took that as an insult; also one towards Francis, who was also there. Why would you let her play such a crucial role if the trust isn’t there?”
After years of conflict, Statian politicians choose unity
It is the first time that the island council of Statia presented a unanimous front when they sent a statement towards The Hague. The largest party, the Progressive Labour Party (pro-autonomy) and the Democratic Party (pro-municipal status) became fervent rivals around 2015.
“If someone said a few years ago that all the council members would be fighting together to re-instate our democracy, a lot of people would have told you that that would never happen”, said Leerdam (PLP). “We learned how strong unity makes us and how much we have in common with each other.”
How to continue?
As is usually the case when Knops returns to the Netherlands a report will be sent to Parliament. Caretaker state secretary Knops is allegedly aware of the press conference held by the council members, but does not want to comment on it yet.
Parliament decided this week to talk to the members of the Island Council next week. They will discuss amongst other things how to expedite the re-instatement of democracy on Statia, but also how the island can strengthen its government, economy, and social programs.
The island wants to work together with The Hague to conduct research into the social and economic problems on the island, so that a improvement plan can be set up. They demand that Statia receives more funds in the form of ‘free allocation’, just like the other municipalities in the European part of the Netherlands. The five council members also want training programs to be made available to them so that they can improve the work they are doing.