Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba need no longer be worried that their constitutional status will be anchored in the Dutch Constitution anytime soon. The Constitution can only be amended at the earliest in 2017, long after the general evaluation of the islands’ public entity status in 2015. The law proposal to amend the Constitution to secure the constitutional status is not aimed to harness the islands into accepting a specific constitutional status before the evaluation, assured Dutch caretaker Minister of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations Liesbeth Spies in a discussion of the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament on Tuesday evening.
The caretaker cabinet is merely executing the wish of the Second Chamber, expressed during the constitutional process in 2010, to anchor the special status of the three Dutch public entities in the Constitution and to secure a legal base for the islands, Spies explained. It always takes two readings to amend the Constitution, meaning that the current Parliament does the first reading and a subsequent Parliament does the second one after the next elections in 2017. The support of two-thirds of Parliament is necessary to amend the Constitution. The Christian Union (CU) was the only party that objected to handle the law proposal to amend the Constitution at this time. Member of Parliament (MP) Gert-Jan Segers in his maiden speech criticised the Dutch government for starting the process to adapt the Constitution a mere two years after the islands became part of The Netherlands, instead of waiting for the general evaluation in 2015. “We are not against amending the Constitution, but it has to be done properly and at the interest of the islands,” said Segers. He lamented the fact that the public entities had a very limited say in the proposal to amend the Constitution. He pointed out that the general public entities law, the WolBES prescribes that there should be a consultation process when it concerns legislation proposals that involve the three islands.
Minister Spies contended that the island governments were approached various times by letter, via telephone or in personal contacts and informed of the importance to make use of the consultation. Initially the islands didn’t make use of the consultation and it was only until recently that they responded in writing. Basically, Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba are against amending the Constitution before the evaluation in 2015.
The other parties in the Second Chamber agreed to initiate the process to amend the Constitution in order to secure the islands’ constitutional position, except for the Party for Freedom PVV. MP Sietse Fritsma of the PVV said his party was against any amendment that didn’t imply the departure of all overseas territories from the Dutch Kingdom. He said the proposed amendment didn’t leave room for the islands to chose a sovereign status.
The Labour Party PvdA was initially a bit sceptical about initiating the process to amend the Constitution at this time in anticipation of the 2015 evaluation, but the letter of Minister Spies took away that reluctance and as such the PvdA could support the law proposal, stated PvdA MP Pierre Heijnen. “It is clear that no adaptation will be necessary if the islands, based on the evaluation, would chose a slightly different status like that of a municipality. Now that we have had elections and the next election will take place in 2017, there is plenty time to handle after the 2015 evaluation. That is why we overcame our reluctance,” said Heijnen.
MP Wassila Hachchi of the democratic D66 party said it was important to take away the islands’ concerns that the Constitution would be amended way after the evaluation in 2015. She said The Hague should take the islands’ concerns on this issue seriously. “D66 would like to see that the feeling that The Hague doesn’t listen changes into the belief that The Hague hears the concerns and problems of the islands.” Hachchi referred to a letter of the Saba Island Council to illustrate the objections of an amendment to the Constitution at this time. “Saba prefers to become a municipality instead of a public entity. That status is on the table in 2015. The Island Council gives an important signal. More importantly, the letter expresses the feeling that a change to the Constitution anticipates on the evaluation and secures an unequal situation,” she said.
The unequal situation which Hachchi referred to concerns a differentiation clause in the proposal to amend the Constitution. According to the islands, the proposal discriminates citizens of the islands, because they would not have the same rights as people living in The Netherlands. This would turn island residents into second-class citizens. MP Madeleine van Toorenburg said it was important not to “look away from the legitimate concerns” of the islands. “They have the feeling that they are being scuffled into our Constitution before there is an evaluation of the constitutional status,” she said.
Minister Spies stressed that by no means the proposal to amend the Charter to “presort in whatever direction” on the outcome of the evaluation. “We provide a constitutional base that has to be present under all circumstances and which also justifies the results of the evaluation. We will have to prepare legislation based on the evaluation. We cannot do that without a constitutional basis,” she said. According to Spies, postponing the process to secure that constitutional basis at this time would result in a delay of many years. It meant that the first reading would be handled in the next period of the Second Chamber and that the second reading would only take place in 2020 or 2021. “That time span is too big,” she said.