Gemengde gevoelens bij Eilandsraad Sint Eustatius over bezoek Van Huffelen

Oranjestad – De leden van de Eilandsraad van Sint Eustatius kijken met gemengde gevoelens terug op het kennismakingsbezoek van staatssecretaris van Koninkrijksrelaties Alexandra van Huffelen. Dat bleek vanmiddag tijdens een persconferentie waarbij de voltallige raad aanwezig was.

De raadsleden vinden dat er in het programma te weinig tijd was ingeruimd om dieper in te gaan op hun grieven jegens Den Haag: het ontbreken van perspectief op het volledige herstel van de democratie. Er is sinds oktober 2020 wel weer een gekozen Eilandsraad, maar gedeputeerden zijn er niet. Hun taken worden uitgeoefend door regeringscommissaris Alida Francis.

Statement Eilandsraadslid Koos Sneek

From past Sunday until Tuesday morning the new state-secretary Mrs. Alexandra van Huffelen has visited the island. According to herself she had visited the Leeward Islands before, but it was the first time she now visited the Windward Island including Statia.

From the media but also according to her own account, until her appointment as state-secretary of Interior affairs and kingdom relations, she knew very little about the islands. Some may see this as a negative, but it can also be a positive since without any pre-knowledge she can enter the debate with a blank slate, which allows her to make decisions without prejudice. I really would want to count on the last one.

The island council’s request for a meeting to break the ice after her arrival on Sunday afternoon, initially was turned down. It is unclear whether this decision was made by herself or someone in her entourage, or by our government commissioner, remains unclear. Eventually we were invited on very short notice to have drinks with her on Sunday evening. I think, it was very good that most of us were still able (and willing) to show up for this.

Monday morning the island council members met with her at the Ernest van Putten Youth Center. This location was chosen due to the applicable Covid regulations. Also leading to this meeting there was a level of aggravation under the council members, including myself. The return to democracy was one of the main topics for the visit of Mrs. van Huffelen and the island council seems to me the main stakeholder in this debate. Yet, we were granted a time slot of exactly one hour to get our points across. Eventually on our explicit request, this was extended to an hour and a half.

Both incidents, Sunday after her arrival and Monday morning, appears to subscribe to the notion that the role of our elected officials is seen as a side issue and sometimes even a necessary nuisance. I would not want to blame the state-secretary in this case, since it is not clear who was responsible for these mishaps. It reminds me though of the last time when Mr. Knops visited the island, May last year, when the roundabout was officially opened without the council members were invited or even informed about this.

The discussions in the meeting Monday morning were open and franc. And of course, we addressed all issues that are of importance to Statia, such as the high cost of living, the housing situation, banking situation, the problems we experience with the notary services, the poor and very expensive airlift etc.

The main topic however I believe is the need to a return of full local democracy. Without that in my opinion the island council is just a toothless tiger, without any power to play a role of all the matters of importance to our people I just described.

I need to compliment my colleague Rechelline who before I spoke gave the opening shots. These were all clear and to the point, giving a good description of the situation on Statia, the poor relations with the government commissioner and the difficulties the island council members are confronted with in a situation after the intervention where they lack the tools and the authority to have any influence on the policies and developments that are important to our people.

I emphasized on the need to finalize this intervention and agree on an end date, whereby our local democracy will be restored. Since time and again has been said by the former State Secretary and also by members of parliament, that the island council’s role is a decisive factor in the speed whereby the process will be completed, I requested the state-secretary to explain me what is then expected of me. What do I need to do to speed up the process, while almost all actions to be taken, including the infamous 12 criteria depend solely on the role of the government commissioner and her staff of civil servants? Unfortunately, I did not get an answer.

But I am looking hard for positive signs. Therefore, in her statements, I did notice a slightly different sentiment. While Mr. Knops always used to say, the return to democracy needs to be as speedily as possible, but as long as necessary, Mrs. van Huffelen did not say the last part. This gives me a little hope.

She also said that it takes three to tango. This means that she wants to be involved. Until now it was a tango of only two, the island council and the government commissioner.

Well, we all know by now that this has created an almost unworkable situation, which has led to the motion where the island council is asking for mediation, a process that in the meantime has started. Including herself in the dance of three is an indication that she will not let us all swim and await until we have drowned, but rather that she wants to be part of the solution. Also, this gives me a little hope.

But then again, when talking with civil servants in her entourage, it became clear that even positive results booked will be no guarantee of a speedy return of democracy. There is rather a great suspicion in The Hague that with the present composition of the island council there will be a realistic chance that when appointing commissioners, we will fall back in the same type of government as before and we will be faced with another intervention. I believe that I have sufficient arguments to dispute this, but it is very hard to convince The Hague, and apparently also some of the people on Statia about this.

And I fully understand that continuing to make negative and sometimes aggressive statements and accusations by colleague council members, in island council meetings and in the media, is not really contributing to a change in the state of mind of The Hague and to a conclusion of the intervention we are in.

But then again, I have a great problem with this state of mind, whereby the return to democracy is notjust depending on the improvement of government and the government apparatus, but that it depends on who the individuals in the island council are. This is unconstitutional. The people have the right to be governed by those who they have elected. No matter what other’s or higher government officials’ opinion is about them. No matter who will be in the next government, this may not be a deterrent to restore democracy. And if the Dutch government is convinced that certain persons acted wrong or against the law and there is a suspicion that this will happen again, deal with those people and don’t hold an entire island hostage.

It will also require some level of diplomacy from our part as well, and with this I mean the entire island council, to convince them about this. Maybe it is about time to step over our own shadow too.

The state-secretary did agree with us that since there wasn’t the required real deliberation and consent with the island council about the route timetable of the return to democracy between the government commissioner and the island council, the government commissioner needs to return to the table. And I am awaiting the invitation from Ms. Francis.

What is the way forward? I believe the next step is to put together a convincing plan and timetable to the return to democracy, hopefully supported by the entire island council and the government commissioner. Also, a trip to The Netherlands needs to be planned shortly to lay out this plan and get the necessary support.

Going into the next elections, in March 2023, without the knowledge that after these elections also an executive council can be appointed, and Statia will be forced to continue with a lame duck island cuncil, is something I do not even want to think about now.

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