Divided Islands

The divided islands: Saint Martin

This series of articles will focus on a territorial quirk I find very interesting because cases are more numerous than I first thought and because it is the source of disparities; I will write about those islands that are split into several countries (mostly two, sometimes more). Of course, some cases are more famous than others. You might have thought of Cyprus and Ireland. I will attempt to write about as many as possible, so come back every week to read about a new place.

The island of Saint Martin was discovered by Christopher Columbus, who was then on his second voyage to the Caribbean, on November 11th 1493, on Saint Martin’s day, hence the name. Due to its salt deposits and protected waters, the Flemish, Dutch, French, English, Portuguese and Spanish all wanted to take possession of the newly discovered land.

The Dutch started occupying Saint Martin in 1627, which caused direct confrontation with Spain as Columbus had claimed the island for the Spanish Crown. The Spaniards, however, found the island too small and thus abandoned it in 1648. The French and the Dutch decided to share the island and settled the agreement with the Treaty of Concordia.

The Treaty delineates the French (northern two-thirds) and the Dutch (southern third) parts. It also established that there would be no physical demarcation between the two and that both should live as friends and allies and come to each other’s rescue if need be. The peaceful nature of the Treaty of Concordia, which is still applied today, has awarded the island with the nickname of ‘Friendly Island’.

Map of Saint Martin island

Map of Saint Martin – Source: Doing Business in Saint Martin

The sugarcane industry—which utilized slave labour—became the mainstay of the Saint-Martin economy. Slavery was abolished in 1848, and the economy languished for a time. In the 1970s Saint-Martin began developing its tourism sector; the island is now a major Caribbean tourist destination.

The French part, Saint Martin

Covering 53 sq. meters, the French side of the island counts a population of a little over 30,000 inhabitants.  It is an overseas collectivity (it is also referred to as community) of France (collectivité d’outre-mer), a status voted by the local population in 2003 and which came into effect in 2007. Saint Martin previously was a commune and together with Saint Barthélemy, an arrondissement of the French overseas département of Guadeloupe. The new status awards the island with more autonomy and more local prerogatives and came as an acceptable alternative to independence, which was a popular option pre-referendum.

Saint Martin is still a part of France and participates in the legislative life of the metropole as most laws are applicable to the island. Saint Martin, however, decides on their own Tax Law; Spatial planning, construction and housing; Tourism; Transport; and Creation, development of seaports. The French States still decides on civil, commercial, labor, employment and criminal law, as well as education, health, security and justice.

As a French collectivity, Saint Martin is also integrally part of the European Union and the euro zone (€ is the official currency, but US dollars are also commonly used) as part of the Outermost Regions (ORs) group. ORs also include Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Réunion, Martinique, Mayotte and Saint-Martin (France), the Azores and Madeira (Portugal), and the Canary Islands (Spain). The acquis communautaire of the EU also apply to ORs.

Due to their remoteness, insularity, small size and difficult climate, special funds and regulations have been awarded to the ORs by the EU in order to help them palliate for the difficulties that accompany their special circumstances. These include laxer regulations on “customs and trade policies, fiscal policy, free zones, agriculture and fisheries policies, and conditions for supply of raw materials and essential consumer goods”.

Sint Marteen, the Dutch part  

The Dutch part of the island of Saint Martin, Sint Marteen, was integrated into the Dutch West Indies in 1828, which became the Netherlands Antilles (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, Sint Marteen, Sint Eustasius, Saba)  in 1945. This status granted the group of islands with autonomy in their internal affairs while remaining part of the Dutch Kingdom. From 1986 onwards, the Netherlands Antilles lost some of its constituents (Aruba seized autonomy) to finally be dissolved in 2010. This means that all the constituent territories of the Netherlands Antilles, which were then governed as one political entity by Amsterdam, are, in most cases, autonomous regions and countries of their own.

The Flag of Sint Marteen

The Flag of Sint Marteen

In Sint Marteen specifically, this change was brought due to the population’s desire to achieve full independence. The inhabitants finally decided in the 2005 referendum to seize more autonomy while remaining a country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The Dutch government retains all decisions when it comes for foreign affairs and defense.

Sint Marteen shares the same currency with Curacao, the Netherlands Antillean guilders (ANG).

Contrary to the French side, Sint Marteen is not part of the European Union under the same conditions as Saint Martin. The Dutch country is part of the Overseas Countries and Territories (OCTs) group, along with 24 other islands which belong to France (New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Mayotte…), Denmark (Greenland) and the United Kingdom (The Falklands, Montserrat, Pitcairn, etc.). For them, “The European acquis does not apply to OCTs; instead, the detailed rules and procedures for the Association are provided for by the Council Decision 2013/755/EU on the Association of the OCTs with the European Union which was adopted on of 25 November 2013. It aims to modernise the relationship of the EU with its OCTs, moving beyond development cooperation and focusing on a reciprocal relationship based on mutual interests.” The EU also provides them with financial support to their development plans.

Advantages and Stability

This case of divided island is very different from the cases of Hispaniola, Cyprus and New Guinea which have been analysed so far in this series of articles on the divided islands. This stems from the fact that the inhabitants seem to have found a political arrangement with their metropolitan states that suits their needs. It is also interesting to see that the good relations France and the Netherlands enjoy is reflected in Saint Martin – the Treaty of Concordia may have helped. The fact that the two sides of the island have always made it a point to work together seems to have brought positive results. Let’s not forget, though, that, as dependencies of wealthy countries, partners or parts of the European Union, and due to the geographically interesting location of the island, Saint Martin also gets a lot of financial supports from Europe, which probably makes the inhabitants’ lives much sweeter than if the island were to be sovereign.



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