Welcome to the Roskilde Festival for Danish politics

Denmark’s biggest political event has turned into something of a love fest where lobbyists woo lawmakers. But some worry that all the cosying up is killing the charm

It began – or was at least conceived of – as an open event where politicians could meet their constituents, face to face. 

And no doubt, Folkemødet has been popular. In the three years since its inception in 2011, the four-day political gathering, whose name in English means ‘the people’s meeting’, has seen its number of participants swell to 60,000, treble the number that attended in the first year.

All of parliament’s political parties will have a presence in the tiny harbour town of Allinge on the island of Bornholm, where the meetings are held. But, not everyone attending Folkemødet will be a rank and file voter. Many of them will be representatives from unions, businesses, universities, NGOs, culture organisations, local governments. In short: lobbyists.

And that’s where the idea behind Folkemødet begins to unravel.

Summer camp for grown ups

Despite its folksy intentions, Folkemødet has been criticised from the start for being nothing more than an excuse for politicos and their pals to slap each other on the back and drink copious amounts of beer in the warm Bornholm sunshine. 

Folkemødet was the brainchild of the then interior minister, Bertel Haarder, who was inspired by a similar event in Sweden and decided to bring the idea to Denmark. Haarder, though, is proud of his baby and refutes claims that it has drifted from its moorings.

“I had a budget for promoting rural areas and Bornholm received one million kroner to get the ball rolling,” said Haarder. “The success proves that there was a need for such an event.”

Haarder said the Swedish event Almedalveckan that Folkemødet is modelled on has been overrun by unions and companies. Denmark’s meeting, he feels, has remained true to its folksy roots.

“I wanted a mixture of a summer camp for grown-ups, a Roskilde Festival and a political fair – and that’s exactly what I got,” he said.

Folkemødet is four days of peace, love and politics - if you want to mix your metaphors (Photo: Scanpix)Ulf Førsteliin, a spokesperson for the organising group, admitted that lobbying is part of Folkemødet, but argued that much is accomplished over the schnapps and smoked herring lunches.

“New contacts are made, existing relationships are strengthened and perhaps some are moved out of their entrenched positions,” he said. “If it wasn’t of value, parties and other organisations that come would not invest so much of their time and resources in participating.”

But the business spokesperson for Socialdemokraterne (S), Benny Engelbrecht, went as far as to say that the conference has deteriorated into nothing more than a love fest for lobbyists.

“It has become a party for the elite,” he said. “Lobbyists partying with politicians and buying them free food and drinks.”

Engelbrecht told the story of one local Allinge hamburger joint where the owner ran out of blank receipts before he ran out of food, because the lobbyists could write off food they buy to entertain lawmakers.

Engelbrecht wants to see expenses documented in the interest of transparency and wants the focus of the meeting to swing back to where it was intended – the people.

“It is important that this is not just an exclusive celebration for the privileged, but also a feast for the community, the people and our democracy.”

But while special interests often have access to the nation’s leaders, it is increasingly rare that the public – the people – get an opportunity like Folkemødet was intended to be.

Some also point to the immense success of Folkemødet as a problem. Instead of engaging in a freewheeling give and take, they say that leaders like Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Lars Løkke Rasmussen (Venstre) merely use their allotted time on stage to deliver their usual stump speeches, play to the more than 400 assembled media representatives, and move on, with precious little contact with ‘the people’.

This year, over 1,300 events are scheduled to take place between the opening gavel on the afternoon of Thursday June 13 and lights out on Sunday night. All events are free and open to the public.

Participants are in charge of establishing the programme, and as the event has grown, it has become ever more hectic. Even for the most stalwart political junkie, there is simply no way to attend all, or even most of the events.

Spokesperson Førsteliin said the somewhat chaotic nature of the experience is what Folkemødet is all about.

“It is an opportunity for politicians and other decision-makers to meet people and try out new ideas in a relaxed environment to network and debate more informally than they usually can,” said Førsteliin.

That was a sentiment echoed by Johnny Nim, the head of employment insurance providers’ association Det Faglige Hus. The organisation has had representatives in Allinge at all three Folkemøde meetings.

“Last year we came home with a whole list of great ideas and a lot of inspiration,” he said. “The strength of the public forum is that we get input from many different sources, including those who do not agree with us.”

It might look like Circus Danmark, but for lobbyists and the local economy, Folkemøde is serious business (Photo: Scanpix)Of the politicians, by the people … and for the businesses

Whether you say Folkemødet is for the people or for the patricians, there’s one group of people who are just happy that someone is throwing a party in their back yard: Bornholm businesses.

Allinge Røgeri, a harbourfront fish restaurant, is ground zero for much of the long weekend’s activities. Speeches will be given from the tiny stage in the corner of the restaurant and organisations will fill up the surrounding area with tents. Attendees are sure to check in for a smoked herring lunch or at least a beer. Owner Rina Hansen said the event is a plus for businesses on the island. 

“It if course great while the event is going on, and the effect carries over because it shines a spotlight on Bornholm,” she said.

Another concern raised about Denmark’s political Roskilde is how much tax payer money is being used to send the nation’s politicians to the Sunshine Island.

Corporate, philanthropic and political sponsors kick in a large share of the costs. And the Bornholm local government kicks in one million kroner.

Førsteliin said the island more than gets its money back through revenue from hotel rooms, meals and everything else attendees will be spending money on. 

For an island heavily dependent on tourism, bringing in enough guests to double the island’s population a couple of weeks before the main tourist season even kicks in is a dream come true.

While people in other parts of the country have said that calling an event that has been overrun by politicians and lobbyists a “People’s Meeting” – is a bit disingenous, the people of Bornholm intend to be there in force. Over half of those asked said that they will attend one or more of the Folkemødet events.

Ray Weaver will be posting stories from Folkemødet all weekend. Follow him at cphpost.dk and on Twitter @wordmanray.It's like Roskilde - just with reserved seating (Photo: Scanpix)

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