Fellow Sint Maarteners,
Today, October 10, 2020, we observe the 10th anniversary of Sint Maarten’s Country status.
The tenth anniversary of Country Status is an excellent moment to stop and take stock of our experiences in the past decade and to prepare for the challenges and opportunities for the coming decade.
Today’s observance is a moment to renew our commitment to the goal of Country Status. That is to improve the wellbeing of the people of Sint Maarten.
This morning I address you from this historic location, at the square in the heart of Philipsburg. It was here that we gathered with optimism and expectations to witness Sint Maarten’s transition from Island Territory of the Netherlands Antilles to Country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
As the clock struck midnight to welcome October 10, 2010, we saw the flag of the Netherlands Antilles come down and the flag of Sint Maarten go up. The excitement and optimism of the people present for that historic moment are forever etched in my memory. And I am sure in the memory of all those who witnessed it. The dawning of October 10, 2010 was the start of a new chapter in Sint Maarten’s journey of self-government.
In the next few minutes, I shall highlight some pivotal moments of our island’s journey to and experiences with Country status. And in doing so share some thoughts for the further building of our Country. In saying that I hasten to emphasize that these are but highlights, for it would take me days to give you a complete overview of the journey and experiences.
- The road to Country Status
Based on my experiences of the past two decades I can inform you that the road to Country Status and of the past ten years were not smooth.
A key moment in the process was the October 30, 1998 decision of the Island Council to organize the referendum held on June 23, 2000. In the referendum the people voted for Sint Maarten to become a Country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. On the evening of the outcome of the referendum there was much excitement and jubilance. In a 2003 lecture, reflecting on the atmosphere, I referred to the evening as “The Great Bay Dance”. The result of the referendum was, as such, the first pivotal moment of our journey to Country Status.
Following the referendum, several target dates were set to achieve Country status. It would instead take more than 10 years following the referendum. Throughout the process, Sint Maarten would face push back, based on doubts and concerns from The Hague as to its readiness and capability to carry the responsibilities of a country. There were as a result numerous difficult technical and political negotiations. Unfazed, Sint Maarten persisted in its quest for Country Status.
Process and Criteria
The outcome of Sint Maarten’s referendum and the persistence of Sint Maarten made it clear that the time for constitutional change had come. The change started taking concrete shape with the signing of the Framework Accord on October 22, 2005 in Bonaire and with the signing of the Final Declaration of the Start Round Table Conference on November 26, 2005 in Curacao.
The Accord and Final Declaration established the framework for the process and the criteria to realize the new constitutional arrangements in the Kingdom. These agreements were pivotal moments in the process.
Consensus Kingdom laws
As I said the path to Country status was not smooth. The organization and regulation of the public prosecution service, the police, financial management, debt restructuring, and supervision have been the subject of major debate and contention throughout the process. Several obstacles would have to be overcome. The handling and approval of the consensus Kingdom laws in the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament in April of 2010 was the culmination of tough negotiations, characterized by creative thinking and pragmatism to achieve the end goal. It was another pivotal moment in Sint Maarten’s Journey to Country Status.
The preparation of the Constitution formed an important guide for the progress in our journey to Country Status. Work on the drafting of the Constitution started shortly after the referendum resulting in the presentation of the first draft in February of 2003. At the Round Table Conference of December 15, 2008, it was concluded that the draft constitution and the organic laws met the established criteria. This, following major debate about the proposed introduction of the constitutional court and constitutional review on Sint Maarten. The introduction of constitutional review constituted a novum in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The Constitution was ultimately approved by the island Council in 2010. It would become the most quoted and debated document during the past ten years of Country status. Its ratification was a pivotal moment in Sint Maarten becoming a Country.
Attainment Country Status
The process concluded with the signing of the final declaration at the Final Round Table Conference on September 9, 2010, in the Hague. More than 10 years after the referendum, Sint Maarten celebrated the attainment of Country Status with the rising of the Sint Maarten Flag on October 10, 2010. It was the start of Country Status, the pivotal moment in Sint Maarten’s journey.
- Experiences with Country Status
Looking back, October 10, 2010, is a transformational moment in the history and development of Sint Maarten. On that historic day I delivered my acceptance speech as the first Governor of Sint Maarten before Parliament and stated: “Today we stand at the portal of our new Country Sint Maarten. …the challenges ahead are immense. …. there rests on us a great responsibility; a responsibility to build ….. a stronger Sint Maarten for future generations”. The 10 years since 10-10-10 turned out to be challenging years indeed.
Throughout the process towards Country Status repeated concerns were voiced about, among others, the immigration services, the police organization, the detention system, and the financial and tax administration. Having assumed these responsibilities it was clear that it would take money, people, and time to address the challenges involved.
To meet its new responsibilities the government built the new administrative structure from the ground up. The government, among others:
- created important new institutions such as the Governor, the Parliament, and the Council of Ministers;
- restructured the island government to set up seven ministries;
- founded the Council of Advice, the General Audit Chamber, and the Ombudsman;
- established the Constitutional Court of Sint Maarten;
- developed new policies and procedures consistent with its new responsibilities; and
- completed the new administration building.
As we worked to develop our critical institutions for the functioning of our country, we experienced socio-economic, waste management, climate change, budgetary, and political challenges. These challenges have been exacerbated by major external shocks, as a result of hurricane IRMA in 2017 and COVID-19 in 2020 as I speak.
During the past 10 years we have had our share of political discord resulting in 4 elections and 10 governments. This has led to fundamental questions as to the functioning of our democracy and to discussions about electoral reform. These discussions have dominated public debate. Far less attention has been given to the moments when government and parliament acted in unity towards the building of our Country. Action that has resulted in legislative initiatives such as:
- the conversion and reparation of scores of central government and island government regulations into national ordinances and decrees in the period 2010 through 2012 to reflect the new structure;
- the establishment of the national decree in 2013 to formalize the practice of background screening of candidate ministers before their appointment;
- the introduction of pension reforms in 2016 and 2020, to secure the financial viability of the old age pension system;
- the introduction of reforms to the civil servants’ pension plan in 2016 and 2020 to safeguard its sustainability; and
- the passing of legislation between 2012 and 2019 to comply with international anti-money laundering standards to protect our financial system and economy.
Throughout the decade we have, in good and bad times, been able to count on a broad cross section of our people, to educate our children, to defend our safety and protect our freedoms, to care for the sick and elderly and to provide products and services for our economy. Our economy grew by 0.7% on average from 2011 - 2016 and unemployment declined from 11.5% to 8.7%.
The devastation caused by IRMA to our country’s infrastructure in September of 2017 wiped out socio-economic gains in terms of economic growth and employment. This situation has been exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak since the beginning of this year. The virus has taken too many lives, affected the health of much more and brought travel to a virtual standstill. It is causing businesses to retrench or close and threatening the livelihoods of many. For this year, our country is facing an economic fallout of some 25% and an increase in unemployment to 16.2%. This as many among us lose jobs and face cuts in working hours and/or pay. Already cash strapped, the public finances have been hard hit, resulting in the need to raise funding urgently.
At this 10-year mark of our Country Status we find ourselves in tough times with significant financial and socio-economic challenges. As we face these challenges it is important that we guard against emphasizing the times that we have fallen and forgetting the times that we have risen. In the aftermath of IRMA many people in our community got up, brushed themselves of and started working to rebuild their homes, reopen their businesses, help their neighbors, and support our youngster and our elderly. And since the coronavirus outbreak there has been many courageous men and women out there on the frontline risking their own health to save lives and to keep us safe. Courageous health care professionals, law enforcement officers, firefighters, supermarket employees, other frontline employees, and volunteers, who day in and day out rise to the task to protect our wellbeing and our country.
These two crises have called for major responses from the government and our population. And all indications are that more efforts and sacrifices will be required going forward. We have worked with and received valued support from our Kingdom partners in response to hurricane IRMA and the coronavirus. Amidst it all, it is regrettable that relations between Sint Maarten and the Netherlands have been strained.
Caught up in the urgency to address our challenges, we sometimes fail to appreciate and recognize, the dedicated efforts and contributions of our people, fine professionals and volunteers. Contributions which are necessary for progress and to maintain Sint Maarten as a good place to live.
- The future
Looking ahead I therefore dedicate this 10th anniversary to the people of Sint Maarten with a plaque, which reads:
Remembers the first celebration of Country Status in the heart of Philipsburg, Commemorates the Tenth Anniversary of Country Status
Dedicated to the People of Sint Maarten for their Perpetual Progress.”
Looking ahead to the coming decade we know that major challenges are on the horizon. Challenges because of climate change, of increased risks of global pandemics, of rapid technological advancements and of the ageing of our population. Challenges which few countries can handle on their own. Facing the effects of IRMA and the coronavirus we are already confronted with the realities of these challenges.
Armed with this knowledge, the question we face today is: What can we do now to overcome these challenges and make the next decade, a decade of growth and progress for our people. For at the end of the day, that is the purpose of the attainment of Country Status.
Faced with these challenges each of us can draw valuable lessons from our 10 years journey to and from our 10 years of experience with Country Status. We can look back and draw inspiration from the knowledge, that faced with great challenges we have the resilience, courage, and determination to rise, meet and overcome them as a people. We can look forward with confidence, trusting that that spirit will, as always, continue to drive the future development and building of our country.
We must at the same time not take our Sint Maarten spirit for granted. It is instead important for us to mobilize, inspire and nourish our Sint Maarten spirit. Going forward this calls for stable and effective governance and for the establishment of a “National Agenda for the 2020s” anchored on broad societal support.
Our first order of business must however be the coming together of – government, business, labor, and civil society, – without delay in an “emergency meeting”. This to develop a collective approach to take the required steps to address the current social, economic, and financial challenges associated with the coronavirus crisis. I trust that that will be the first pivotal moment in the second decade of Country Status.
This emergency meeting should serve as the lead up to a National Summit shortly thereafter to develop a comprehensive “National Agenda for the 2020s” to meet the needs of our people. A national agenda aimed at bringing our human resources home, providing affordable housing, strengthening our institutions, enhancing education, realizing sustainable health care, reducing poverty, protecting our environment, creating resilient infrastructure, fostering sound public finances and promoting sustainable economic development for the coming decade.
Guided by our National Agenda we must work with each other and work with our Kingdom, our Northern, and our Caribbean partners to build our Country. As a small country this will offer the opportunity to pool our limited resources, tap into our extended network of partners, and mobilize the resources which are necessary to develop new solutions to these major challenges.
I will in that regard like to leave you with the following words of Nelson Mandela, and I quote: “It always seems impossible until it is done ..” unquote. The realization of Country Status seemed to be an insurmountable challenge and we achieved it. Today’s observance of the tenth anniversary of Country Status is thus a reminder that as a people we have the resilience, persistence, and capacity to develop and follow an effective strategy. A reminder that we must use these characteristics to overcome our challenges and build our country for current and future generations.
In closing, let us thank God for watching over our country through good and bad times, during the past decade, and ask him for wisdom and guidance for the decade ahead.
It is in that spirit that Marie-Louise and I extend Best Wishes to the people of Sint Maarten on this 10th Constitution Day and for the future of our Country.
Thank you, God bless you, and May God bless Sint Maarten and protect its coast.