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Min. Spies: farewell interview with Suzanne Koelega

Dutch caretaker Minister of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations Liesbeth Spies (46)  felt proud about the positive result of the recent meetings with delegations from Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba. She is not proud about the instruction that Curaçao got from the Kingdom Council of Ministers to get its budget in order.   St. Maarten receives compliments for improving its budgetary discipline. “St. Maarten had to come from very far.” Dutch caretaker Minister of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations Liesbeth Spies (46) would have loved to stay a bit longer, but fate decided otherwise. She has to leave now that a new cabinet consisting of the conservative VVD party and the Labour Party PvdA is taking over.

Departing Minister Liesbeth Spies: warm and strict.

Following is an interview of Suzanne Koelega (The Daily Herald, The Hague) with a warmhearted yet straightforward and at times very strict Minister who showed 100 per cent commitment during her short tenure. “The islands got in my blood. I would have loved
to stay on longer, but unfortunately in politics that is not up to you to decide.”

She had very limited affiliation with the Kingdom and the islands when she took on this job in December last year, but that didn’t keep her from giving it all that she had. “When you assume this kind of responsibility, you put your whole heart into it.” Being a member of government means working with people and as such, Spies invested in getting in contact with people as much as her
busy programme permitted.

She has fond memories of her encounter with an elderly lady in Saba during a meet and greet with the people on her first ever visit to the Dutch Caribbean early February this year. “She was in a talking mood and told me all about Saba. We had fun.”

Relations with Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba were off to a shaky start when they became public entities of The Netherlands on October 10, 2010, but have improved over time. The islands had very high expectations, the free remittance was deemed too low, some Dutch ministries were too reserved in their approach towards the islands and communication was sluggish. “Everyone had
to get used to the situation. The confidence grew and I am glad that we closed off the Caribbean Netherlands Week in October with positive results.”

Delegations from Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba told her at the end of the week that she was “warm and strict,” said Spies, smiling.
“Governing is working with people. You must have comprehension for the person behind the politician. On a more serious note, she
added: “I am not there to only be nice. I want to also accomplish things.” A recent poll on the islands confirmed that the extra effort
was not in vain. “People find that there have been improvements in many areas.”

The departing Minister has much praise for St. Maarten, less for Curaçao. The first year after attaining country status on October 10, 2010, was a struggle for St. Maarten. Budgets were submitted too late and they were unrealistic. Financial management was in dire straights and severely understaffed. St. Maarten had trouble fulfilling its tasks as country which led to the drafting of the plans of approach. “The light was on orange,” she said.

At that time, St. Maarten was very close to receiving an instruction from the Kingdom Government. However, the St. Maarten Government headed by Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams didn’t sit idle and put in all effort to improve budget discipline and upgrade the administration. The Netherlands offered technical support and with the help and advice of the Committee for Financial Supervision CFT and the Plans of Approach Committee, things have gradually gotten better. “No skeletons have emerged from the closet in the past months,” said Spies.

“St. Maarten had to come from very far; a new country had to be built. What they have shown in two years is quite an  accomplishment.” It was not always a smooth ride. St. Maarten, and also Curaçao, was not too happy with the decision of the Kingdom Government to extend the plans of approach by two years for some areas, mainly justice. Spies said she had had a rough start with St. Maarten’s Justice Minister Roland Duncan. Luckily their relationship got better over time, but Spies still remains critical about the situation at the Pointe Blanche prison. “Things are not going as we had agreed. I hear nice stories, but I see insufficient result.”

Spies had to disappoint St. Maarten in that it could no longer make use of the funds to repay debts as part of the larger debt reorganisation in the process of dismantling the Netherlands Antilles. St. Maarten was too late with its bills and in some cases the documentation was incomplete or insufficiently substantiated. According to the Minister, St. Maarten was given enough opportunity to make use of the arrangement. Especially in comparison with Curaçao, St. Maarten has shown that it is serious about properly executing its tasks as a new country. “St. Maarten is developing positively, but not Curaçao.”

Curaçao’s finances are a mess, the country is in serious financial trouble and the 2012 budget was not balanced. This was reason for the Kingdom Government to give Willemstad an instruction on July 13 this year, based on the advice of the CFT. Spies said July 13 was a day that she would never forget. It was not an easy decision, albeit a necessary one, because Curaçao’s finances and the people by extension were at serious risk. “Children would have gone hungry if the government’s finances had completely run aground.”

Less friendly Relations with Curaçao, in particular the Schotte cabinet, got less friendly over the last year and a half, said Spies. Because she considered it important to invest in good relations, in particular the contacts between the Prime Ministers of the Kingdom, she initiated the plan together with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to invite the Prime Ministers of the overseas countries of the Kingdom for a working dinner on July 12. “We decided that it was good to invest in each other and not to simply move from one Kingdom Conference to the next,” said Spies. The working dinner with the Prime Ministers was constructive.

Asked if Curaçao had a right to see the next day’s decision as betrayal, Spies said it was important to separate personal and professional issues. “Curaçao knew that there were complicated issues on the agenda the next day.” Spies is very adamant
where it comes to sticking to agreements. “Agreements must be honoured. I comply with my word and I expect the other to do so as well.” Curaçao didn’t comply with the conditions set in the Financial Supervision Law. And that was why Willemstad was ordered to get its financial household in order, much to the chagrin of the Curaçao Government, which filed an appeal at the Council of State.

Relations with Curaçao have improved with the interim cabinet headed by Stanley Betrian in place. “It is very nice when you get an answer to your question – a big contrast with the previous government.” Her advice to the next Curaçao Government? “I invite them
to execute what was agreed to.”

Aruba is a different story. The relations are more mature because Aruba already became a country in the Kingdom 25 years ago and
the efforts of the cabinet of Mike Eman for closer cooperation and strategic partnerships are valued in The Hague. “We are exploring
opportunities from which we can both optimally benefit,” she said.

The political attitude in The Netherlands and the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament has become harsher over the years. Spies said that this harsher attitude sometimes hurts and that at times the statements lacked subtlety. “That is not pretty. What purpose does it serve? I ask myself sometimes. Politicians have to give the right example, here and also there.” According to the Minister,
the Second Chamber was too outspoken and also premature when it qualified the election results in Curaçao as a sign that the islands wanted independence. “Sometimes Parliamentarians use big words. I don’t consider the election results as a choice for  ndependence,” she said, stressing that it was up to the people in Curaçao to decide whether they wanted independence or not.

Spies responded with a convinced “yes” to the question whether the Kingdom still had a future. “The new constitutional relations are
most certainly not the last station. Let’s not draw premature conclusions. It was only two years ago that the new relations went into effect. We can be proud of what has been achieved. Of course there are still obstacles that have to be overcome. But we shouldn’t instantly shout that it is not working out.”

Source: The Daily Herald, Novembr 2, 2012

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