"The message all along has been for St. Maarten to find some kind of relationship with Caricom," said former Caribbean Association of Industry and Commerce (CAIC) Secretary Ludwig Ouenniche, who welcomed the move by Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams to look into the country becoming an associate member of the Caribbean Community Caricom.
Wescot-Williams had announced this intention following her attendance at the 32nd Regular Meeting of the Conference of the Heads of Government held in St. Kitts, on July 1. This would bring closer the possibility for the country to play a bigger role in the Caribbean.
Ouenniche said the St. Maarten Chamber of Commerce, of which he also served as a board member, has been "aggressive in advising government" to make this move over the years due to the Chamber's membership in the CAIC.
The benefits for St. Maarten are vast, especially the ability to tap into funding and programmes not accessible now because of non-membership, he added. What makes this move even more important is the benefit the country would be able to reap for the large number of people living here who are originally from Caricom member countries.
Caricom countries are benefiting from European Union funding and other sources of financing shut off to St. Maarten because of its constitutional position as a country within the Dutch Kingdom; associate membership would clear this barrier.
Access to cheaper generic medication to treat, for example, HIV/AIDS has been a hurdle St. Maarten has been trying to cross while Caricom countries are able to care for people living with this disease in a more cost effective way thanks to Caricom agreements and programmes.
There has been some success with HIV/AIDS funding thanks to collaboration with Caricom through relationships formed by people like Suzette Moses of the government's HIV/AIDS Programme Management Team (PMT) and not on any formal construction, Ouenniche pointed out. This would change once associate membership is attained.
"St. Maarten is confronted on a daily basis with Caribbean needs through your population and business community, the system cannot help because of certain constraints. I can name one major constraint – the economic partnership agreement between Caricom and the European Union. I was constantly reminded, although I played a part in getting the agreement signed, that St. Maarten could not benefit because there was no formal relationship with Caricom," Ouenniche said.
"We have some 65 per cent of our population of Caricom origin and now we are confronted with a system, help that is right there, but the same people from the same countries cannot get that help because they are living in a country that is not part of the system."
If St. Maarten wants to take care of all of its target groups that are in need, the country has to "spread its wings" and explore the possibilities to tap into funding such as through Caricom, he said.
Numerous economic and social papers coming out of the region that are somehow connected to EU funding in the last five years, including the economic partnership agreement Green Paper of the Dutch Caribbean islands, French programme Interrec and Cariform/Domincian Republic agreement that all have "strong recommendations" from EU for collaboration and creation of linkages among the Overseas Countries and Territories in the region and the Caribbean in general.
"As we all know when the EU says it strongly recommends, the message is that you must. The EU has allocated funding to help these collaborations and linkages."
St. Maarten via the now former Netherlands Antilles has already made contributions to the furthering of regional relationships. One contribution has been the planning and execution of the Small Enterprise Stimulation in the Netherlands Antilles SESNA which has been copied and outlined in the Economic Partnership agreement as a model to follow.
St. Maarten, although small, has a vast experience as proven by the SBDF [Small Business Development Foundation] model being voted as the best in the region during a 2009 meeting in Jamaica. "This is to show you that the little experience that we have it had good impact. So the immediate benefit today is that St, Maarten can continue to be used as a regional platform not only for [shipment of] goods, but for services."
Similarly, the country's disaster management model is one of the best in the region with local experts such as Paul Martens invited to give presentations about its formulation. "Today, we can translate that model into a blue print to help Caricom countries at a price. Things coming out of St. Maarten have regional scope – the [RED] campaign to combat HIV/AIDS is another example of a locally grown idea that has been adopted by some Caricom countries. We can translate our success stories into funds and access more money to further develop these plans."
Ouenniche said there's a lot of talk in the community about associate membership in the Caricom not being beneficial to the country. "I would like to ask the reverse question: what are the constraints that we have?"
As an associate member, St. Maarten will not become part of the Caribbean Single Market Economy (CSME) when this gets actively on the way. Also, the country would not have to get involved with any political issues of Caricom member states and would only have to concern itself with social and economic issues that have benefits for its people and economic growth.
"People are afraid that being an associate member we would have to open our borders allowing more immigration. That is not true because it is not even happening right now within the Caricom countries," Ouenniche said.
Closer ties with Caricom would also open doors for local non-governmental organisations to make a difference regionally by sharing ideas as well as gaining knowledge and know-how from counterparts in the Caribbean.
The local private sector has always been a player in the Caribbean and with the move by government to seek associate membership in Caricom, the country's involvement as a key player will be strengthened, said Ouenniche.