When the Berlin Wall fell, it turned the road to the reunification of Germany into an autobahn – an expressway that led to East and West Germany becoming one Germany again, despite fears in some quarters around the world that this could possibly resuscitate the dreams of world domination that fueled the Nazi enterprise and caused perhaps the bloodiest war in Europe’s history.
Reunification of nations divided through war, ideology, or any other means, is nothing new in the contemporary political history of the world. Apart from Germany, we have seen the devolution of Hong Kong to Chinese rule and sovereignty, and there are discernible movements, or at least, some diplomatic carrot-dangling towards the reunification of the two Koreas, and in Europe, even in the recently failed attempt in Cyprus.
The fact of the matter is that all over the world, and regardless of how long a nation may have been divided, or the circumstances under which that division took place, the desire for reunification is a universal one, just as the opposite, the wish to break away and form a sovereign nation by a people who believe they have been subjugated, as was the case in East Timor, for example, or the disintegration of the Soviet Union cannot be permanently suppressed. Common to the two tendencies — reunification and disintegration — is the notion of nationhood based usually on a common culture, language and shared geographical space or territory. If what was thought of as an impossible dream, — the reunification of Germany — became a reality in our own lifetime, is it unthinkable to envision a day in the not-too-distant future, when the two halves of this island — the North and the South — would be reunified? A quick look at the socio-cultural and political realities of the island does not offer a very clear answer.
The partition of the island became effective in 1648, when the so-called Treaty of Concordia was signed between the representatives of the monarchs of France and the Netherlands. As one of the oldest bilateral agreements between two sovereign states in existence today, in real terms, the spirit of Concordia has prevailed over the letter of the Treaty itself. A closer examination of the document however shows that it was virtually identical to the treaty signed between the French and the English on St. Kitts around the same period. That template has not been broken up till today, although violations of the agreement have always been ignored either by ignoring them or by more violations.
The Treaty of Concordia, invoked whenever it is convenient by those who inherited it, serves, if not legally, at least psychologically, as the basis of the “harmonious cohabitation” between the French-controlled northern half of the island, and the Dutch-controlled South. Constitutionally, however, the North is an integral part of the French Republic, while the South belongs to the Netherlands Antilles, a so-called “equal partner” in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Both halves, in any case, are appendages of other colonial constructs that have survived the decolonization process as outposts or peripheries of their European colonizers. In other words, the North is a commune of Guadeloupe, while the South is a territory of the Curacao-centered Netherlands Antilles.
Both halves have been engaged in a political struggle to free themselves of the “middlemen” — Guadeloupe and Curacao — and have direct ties with the France and The Netherlands respectively. The results of the referendum held in the North earlier this year, and of that held in the South in 2000, clearly indicate that there is popular support for the positions adopted by the political ruling classes on both sides, who true to their colonial mentality, have not been on record as entertaining the notion of a possible reunification.
While the leadership of both halves of the island cling more and more to the metropolitan dictates of a constitutional division of St. Martin, there are clear indications that portions of the population in the North and South, act as if that reunification is a done deal, and go about their daily lives as if the island is not divided.
This has been the case with regards to the economy, especially during the boom years of tourism on the island, when the South was virtually the breadbasket, job-wise, for the North. For many also, the choice of a place of residence has depended largely on where rent may be cheaper or family properties more accessible. Thus, it is not unusual for someone worker in the South to reside in the North, and vice-versa. Family bonds stretch deeper than the “artificial” division of the island to make dual nationality easy for some. In fact, taking advantage of the constitutional duality of the island has been an entrenched practice as can be noticed in the licensing of vehicles for road transportation. Because such licenses are cheaper in the North, many official residents in the South carry French license plates on their cars, and several car rental businesses do the same.
The absence of a physical border, or border controls, between the two halves of the island, further cement the idea of oneness among the people, who have all through contemporary history enjoyed both freedom of movement of goods, capital and persons, prompting some to compare it to the process of unification of Europe as evidenced in the ideals of the European Union.
This “virtual freedom” might be the main reason why it has seemed superfluous to even consider a reunification of the island. However, to view the “borderlessness” of the island as enough to bury the possibility of reunifying the island, would be to misinterpret the thrust of the EU itself from a an economic union to a political union, and to underestimate the instinctive desire for one St. Martin that dwells among the indigenous population.
Culturally, for example, it would be foolhardy to attempt any division of the people, regardless of whether they fall under the Northern or Southern administrations. Socially, long-entrenched family relationships ensure the oneness of the people.
Economically, tourism today is the backbone of the island’s economy, in the South as well as in the North. It is only the political division maintained by both Paris and The Hague, that has made the island a two-in-one, or rather, a three-in-one destination — and this is not meant as any promotional slogan. Two-in-one because of its constitutional and administrative division, and three-in-one because apart from the French and Dutch, there is the essential St. Martin-ness anchored on its Caribbean history and experience.
One main argument against the reunification of St. Martin that is often heard is that neither France nor Holland would allow it. However, if the two European colonial masters have been able to surrender part of their sovereignty for a unified Europe, why would they want to hold on to a tiny 37-square mile island in the Caribbean Sea? The answer, unfortunately, may be in the same unification of Europe. The economic importance of St. Martin in slavery days has now given way to the geo-political relevance it offers as a gateway to South America and a foothold in the backyard of the United States.
Besides, the unification of St. Martin cannot be possible unless the island embraces political independence, an option frowned upon by both The Hague and Paris, and obviously not one Washington favors because of the fears of the twin threats of international terrorism and cross-border crimes. Add to that, the fact that the political directorates of the island in the North and South, would as a result of reunification, lose power in their respective fiefdoms, and reunification for St. Martin might sound like a tall order.
However, the idea is taking root gradually, albeit subliminally, in the minds of the population. The “We’re Dutch” and the “We’re French” mentality has diminished considerably in the last generation, evident for example in how residents – including many government officials – refer to “French St. Martin” as “the North” or northern half of the island, and “Dutch Sint Maarten” as “the South” or southern part of the island. As simple as it may sound, the deliberate rejection of “French” and “Dutch” in describing the political division of the island is a psychological triumph of reclaiming the island as one, and of keeping the dream of reunification on the front burners of linguistic expression. Even alternating the annual official celebration of “St. Martin’s Day” between the North and South is a tacit acknowledgement of the need for reunification.
“St. Martin’s Day”, November 11th, chosen because coincidentally, it is a public holiday (Armistice Day) on both halves of the island, is a day when the “unity” of the island is celebrated. But far beyond the ritualistic declarations of “unity” by officials of the two halves of the island at such celebrations, the fact remains that actual cooperation in matters that affect the lives of the people has been elusive, to put it mildly. On the contrary, there has been an accelerated tendency for authorities on each side to go it alone resulting in an accentuation of the dual character of the island – two airports, one on each side; two electricity and water companies, one on each side, and so on… to even include two Carnival celebrations, also one on each side.
But every divided nation has had to cope with such duality in many aspects, although one may argue that it is not a sound use of resources to perpetuate this on a tiny 37-square mile island, with a combined population of at most 80,000 people. If only from the point of view of resource allocation and management, the reunification of the island is an imperative. No community in Europe with the size of the island, in area and population, would be allowed to have two of everything, from airports, to sewage disposal systems.
From benign neglect to not-so-subtle proddings by both Paris and The Hague both power centers which are wholly dedicated to the European enterprise, and consequently would consider a small territory like St. Martin a manageable distraction, it is obvious that if the island were indeed to aspire to political reunification, rather than be gobbled up inexorably as an “Ultra-peripheral territory” (UPT), the new assimilationist construct designed to resolve once and for all, the contradictions with the external frontiers of Europe, then it must face the issue of independence squarely. For many, this may sound like a pipe dream, but the reunification of East and West Germany, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, was largely considered a daydream (in fact, a nightmare, for some). The good news is that St. Martin does not have a border physically dividing it; it does not have a Berlin Wall except the wall erected in our minds. And that could be more difficult to break down, but as the popular saying goes: the gale does not stop at the frontier, meaning no matter how we twist and turn it, we cannot continue living in “virtual freedom” — reunification must be taken up on constitutional agenda.
(Ed. Note: This article was written originally for publication in Discover magazine’s 2004 edition. It is published here with the permission of the author.)