As Europe’s political parties worry about losing touch with apathetic voters, the Danes have a solution: invite them to go on a summer break with you. Folkemødet festival gathers the nation’s leaders together to bring politics closer to the people.
Beneath a blue sky unblemished but for an inflatable pink pig and with the waves crashing on the rocks behind him, Denmark’s former – and, many believe, possibly next – prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen is giving a speech on the main stage. But a minor commotion has broken out towards the back of the crowd. A very tall man in a rubber mask and crown, dressed in a naked suit with sizeable dangling ersatz genitalia, is parading through the crowd beneath a sun shade carried by four attendants.
The reference to The Emperor’s New Clothes is obvious. But is the Dukke Parti (Dolls’ Party) – a protest group for those who are tired of politicians – also trying to draw attention to Rasmussen’s recent clothing-expenses scandal in which he was accused of having his underwear bought for him by his party, Venstre? (This, by the way, is what passes for political scandal in Denmark.)
It is all part of the giddy democratic merry-go-round that is Folkemødet (The People’s Meeting), a non-commercial political jamboree, now in its fourth year, that takes place on the Danish holiday island of Bornholm. Folkemødet, a kind of Glastonbury or Lollapalooza with politicians instead of rock stars, pitches its 250 tents throughout the pretty fishing village of Allinge on the east coast of this Baltic island, presenting over 1,800 events, speeches, debates and discussions. The headline acts are the eight party leaders who, like Rasmussen, give a speech on the main stage. Most of the political parties also have stands, as do the trade unions, other institutions such as the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Confederation of Danish Industry. Also present are various ngos and other pressure groups, many related to health (not a single ailment, from diabetes to epilepsy, goes without its own marquee and complimentary branded mineral water).
“Its a kind of marketplace,” says Adam Price, the writer of celebrated Danish political drama Borgen and a TV chef. “The great thing is you see the big names in Danish politics walking the streets and you can just go up to them and ask about a piece of legislation or suggest something and you actually get an answer, which is incredible.”
The more organised discussions range from investment in new ferry terminals on the Danish islands to EU-US trade agreements (the latter featuring US ambassador Rufus Gifford). One is entitled Do Politicians Have Alcohol Problems? Judging from the number of beer stands, quite clearly yes. T-shirts with arresting slogans are widespread. “Fuck the Poor” is a popular one (meant ironically, one wearer hastens to tell me) and the streets are clogged with petitioners.
Should you wish, you can even be photographed with a full-sized cardboard cut-out of Edward Snowden. Over at the stand for the Dansk Folkeparti (the right-wing Danish People’s Party) their EU member Morten Messerschmidt is giving a talk about his favourite way to prepare oysters. In the high street a slow-mo dance troupe blocks the way of a multi-passenger “beer cycle”.
Despite the grim shadow of Utøya, the police presence on Bornholm is low key. As Price points out, major political figures mingle freely with the crowds, chaperoned by only the occasional spin doctor.
“It is very important that the Danes feel close to their politicians,” says EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard. “You can go and have your photograph taken with the prime minister, you can hear what leading politicians want to say and you yourself can raise your voice. I think that dialogue is incredibly important.”
This unparalleled accessibility is the chief appeal of Folkemødet; “ordinary” Danes can meet and question virtually every politician from the prime minister down as they move from debate to speech platform or, later in the day, mingle over hot dogs and beer. Folkemødet is open to all and once you have covered the cost of getting there and found accommodation (hotels and ferries are booked up months in advance), it’s free of charge. “People’s shoulders drop when they come here; they get some distance from everyday problems and life in Christiansborg [the Danish parliament],” says one local. “Plus, the politicians can’t escape!”
Folkemødet was inspired by a similar event, Almedalsveckan (see panel, left), which has taken place on Gotland island of in Sweden since 1968 (it lasts a week compared to Folkemødet’s four days).
There is no doubting the success of Folkemødet. Bornholm’s mayor, Winnie Grosbøll, says it brought kr23m (€3m) to the island last year, extending the brief two-month holiday season by a valuable few days. The first year drew 10,000 people; this year 80,000 made the trip. Some, such as the leader of the Dansk Folkeparti, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, complain that the event has outgrown the island that hosts it.
“The risk is that because it is on an island it will be too expensive for ordinary people to join in the future,” he says. “Perhaps it could be put in different places in Denmark each year.”
Danish television’s leading political inquisitor, Clement Kjersgaard, fresh from a debate about the digitisation of Danish libraries, has different concerns. “The critical question is, will politicians use this as an excuse and say, ‘We know the people, we come to Bornholm, we meet them,’ and then barricade themselves behind spin doctors for the rest of the year?”
Folkemødet has undeniably become a magnet for PR consultancies representing big business, leading one national newspaper to liken it to “four days’ speed dating for lobbyists and politicians”. This year there was a team of three sales people on the island trying to persuade the Danish Ministry of Defence to purchase Eurofighter jets and there were rumours that Philip Morris was present, although the Smokers’ Union – five gravel-voiced over-60s plus an accordion player in a tent – deny they received any money from tobacco companies.
As gatekeeper of the event, Mayor Grosbøll is keen to stress that the organisers are wary of corporate influence. “We have to keep the core of this as politics and debates. When we make the programme, we quality check and have some standards about who can come.” They have yet to face the potentially tricky issue of an application from a group further to the right of the Dansk Folkeparti.
The Danes are, famously, the happiest people in the world. One of the reasons often cited for this happiness is their close connection to their democratic process. “Elite” is a dirty word in Denmark; power is devolved to an unusual degree and Folkemødet is a living, breathing example of that. The obvious question then is could this format work beyond Scandinavia?
Apparently, a research group from the South Korean government has already been to Almedalsveckan to study the possibilities but what about elsewhere in Europe or even the US? “Yes, why not?” says Haarder. “It’s even more needed in societies where people are even more divided and the politicians even more remote.”
Hedegaard agrees. “Security might be a problem but you can see from the European elections that people feel there is a distance to the European institutions, so I really think there is something here that can inspire others to reconnect with people. Everyone who is here will go home with a renewed trust in democracy and maybe more respect for elected officials.”
“Of course, it’s very closely tied in with our homogenous society and welfare system,” says Price, enjoying the opportunity Folkemødet offers to observe politicians with their guard down. “In the UK you are used to only seeing your politicians getting in and out of big black cars but it’s very good for democracy to actually see our politicians stark-raving drunk in the evenings here – and the next day, completely wasted.”
Early on Sunday morning, Allinge’s streets are sticky with beer (and worse). One wonders how much drunken cross-party coupling goes on. “Oh, they do nothing but,” Kjersgaard says breezily. “As far as I know, this is all they do. Politicians: they spend half an hour a day solving problems, the rest of the time fighting their sense of mutual attraction. ”Let’s just hope that what happens on Bornholm stays on Bornholm.