The Bottom, Saba – Vice-President of the Council of State Thom de Graaf visited Saba on Sunday, January 20 and Monday, January 21, and he liked what he saw and heard. He noticed a well-kept island with a people that strives to be self-reliant, a range of projects that are important for Saba’s development and a proactive government.
“Saba is doing well, also within the Kingdom. Naturally, there are challenges, but the relations with the Netherlands, members of the Dutch Government are good and Saba has a stable government,” said De Graaf in an interview.
De Graaf, who was appointed Vice-President on November 1, 2018, is on a six-day visit to all Dutch Caribbean islands. Since he has been to the islands several times before in previous capacities, these visits more serve as a “renewed introduction” in his new job, heading the Council of State, the highest administrative judge in the Netherlands and the chief advisor in legislation and governance in the Kingdom.
De Graaf knows about the challenges that Saba faces. He mentioned the high cost of living and the prices of transportation to and from Saba. “I see those challenges, but what also strikes me is that Saba really does its best to be self-reliant. You see that in the general state of the island, the many projects that have started in the area of infrastructure, water, solar energy, social housing, agriculture. Saba is using the limitations of a small island resourcefully,” said De Graaf.
“There is always room for improvement, as there is anywhere else. But Saba is actually doing something about it. It takes action, thinks ahead. This is a truly wonderful island with good people. I am happy to be here again.” De Graaf has visited Saba 6 or 7 times since he first came to the island in 2001 with a delegation of the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament. He has also been to Saba as then Minister of Kingdom Relations and as a Member of the First Chamber, the Senate.
While on Saba, De Graaf and his delegation, consisting of Secretary of the Council of State Rob Visser and Council Advisor Ron van der Veer, met with the Executive Council, the Island Council and various representatives of civic society. These talks were all very positive and informative, but the Sabans also didn’t hesitate to express their concerns about issues in the social area, the poverty and the need to establish a social minimum and the bureaucratic rules in the relations with the Netherlands and Bonaire, the headquarters of the National Government Service RCN.
“I noticed in the meetings that the social issues tend to color the view that people have of the relations with the Netherlands and the way the constitutional changes have been implemented. People’s view gets colored by the negative aspects even though there have been many improvements since October 10, 2010. This clearly bothers people and it is leading in the manner in which the relations with the Netherlands are perceived,” De Graaf said.
The Vice-President, who basically heads the Council of State since the King only serves as the ceremonial head of the Council, said he noticed the consensus that existed between the parties in the Island Council about the bigger picture. “I call that a consensus democracy: there may be some differences about the manner in which things are executed, but overall everyone agrees what should and shouldn’t happen,” said De Graaf, who appreciated the fact that the entire Island Council was present.
During the meetings on Saba, the need for more differentiation between the three Caribbean Netherlands islands was stressed. The Hague tends to put Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba together as one entity, without taking the clear distinctions between the islands into consideration. De Graaf said he understood the concerns, but he did add that the Dutch Government is increasingly working with the individual islands.
The red tape and cumbersome constructions in the working relations with Bonaire and the RCN was also mentioned as a point of concern, especially where it concerns medical referrals and work permits. De Graaf said that he has listened carefully to all that was said, and promised to include this in the requested advice that the Council of State of the Kingdom will draft in a few months.
This requested advice (“voorlichting”), asked for by State Secretary of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations Raymond Knops, focuses on the coordination by the Ministry of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations BZK in the execution of the policies for the Caribbean Netherlands, as well as the role of the National Government Representative (“Rijksvertegenwoordiger”), the differentiation between the three islands and the effects of the islands’ geographical position in the execution of policies.
In general, the requested advice is about how the Netherlands deals with the Caribbean Netherlands, how this is organized in The Hague and why it is important for the islands that this is well organized, De Graaf explained. “The Council of State considers it important to be well-informed. That information not only serves for today, but is also the décor for future legislation for the islands.” He emphasized that the Council is an objective institution, and certainly not an extension of the government.
De Graaf said he liked to compare the role of the Council of State to that of an “honest broker.” In other words, a trusted advisor. “We are not one to point fingers. I would say that we give wise advice. I am very content to be directly involved with the islands in this role. The people and authorities on the islands know me and they know that I hold the islands close to my heart. That makes it easier for me to fulfill this role,” said De Graaf, who noted that the previous Vice-Presidents also had a close relationship with the islands.
Visiting Aruba and Curaçao late last week, De Graaf said that on these islands the so-called Dispute Regulation for the Kingdom was one of the main topics in his meetings with the authorities. The Council of State of the Kingdom has been asked by the Second Chamber to give a requested advice on the latest Kingdom law proposal to establish a Dispute Regulation.
De Graaf said the visits to the islands were not only to discuss the Dispute Regulation and the requested advice about the coordinating task of the Ministry of BZK in the relations with the Caribbean Netherlands, but to also talk about the economic and political developments, to get an update and to hear what is important for the islands.
In St. Maarten, De Graaf said that he would be especially interested to hear how the reconstruction after Hurricane Irma is progressing, what the plans are of the St. Maarten Council of Ministers, how the relations with the Netherlands are and how things are working out with the World Bank that manages the Trust Fund for St. Maarten’s recovery. De Graaf said that even though his visit to the Dutch Caribbean was very short this time, he promised to return soon and to have a bit more time to talk with the stakeholders and the people.