Lobbying Regulation in the North

The Puzzle of Non-Regulated Nordic Countries

Emilia Korkea-aho

European countries are cautiously considering lobbying laws. As of December 2021, only a handful of countries have enacted them. But if pan-European news are anything to go by, the handful will soon grow to several countries. The European Commission, which for the second time this autumn conducted a rule of law assessment, found developments on the lobbying regulation front in several country-specific reports. Germany, for instance, adopted a federal law to introduce a lobbying register that will come into force in 2022. In Finland, a draft law for a lobbying register has been finalised and has just been opened for public consultation. Latvia has prepared a new law on lobbying that is currently discussed in the Parliament. Italy is in the process of passing a law to increase the transparency of lobbying, but the proposed law that exempts business umbrella groups and trade unions from the transparency rules has been met with little enthusiasm.

My own country, Finland, is particularly interesting. Together with other Nordic countries, it has not shown even a slightest interest in regulating lobbying up until very recently. It is true that in this respect, the Nordic countries are just like most other EU countries. What is the fuss about? For the umpteenth year running, the top seven countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index include the four Nordic nations of Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway with Iceland close by. This is due to the long history of open government, including the principle of publicness and related access to information laws. Not only do they score highly in international barometers, but the Nordic countries also promote openness, transparency and the rule of law globally. Since the accession of Sweden and Finland to the EU in the mid 1990s, the Nordic countries have worked to raise awareness of the issue of transparency, and Nordic fingerprints can be detected in all EU transparency reforms.

In an article ‘Sunday Dinners and Hot Baths in a ‘Wild Wild North’? The Nordic Discussions on Lobbying Regulation and Implications for the EU Transparency Agenda’, I claim that the fact that none of the Nordic countries has lobbying legislation is puzzling and worth a closer look. To resolve the puzzle, I set out to analyse the parliamentary and governmental debates in the five countries from the 1980s to the present. I wanted to find out why a strong commitment to transparency and open government has not translated into the introduction of lobbying laws in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Finland, and why the countries known for their militant activism on transparency at the international level have, in fact, even actively opposed recommendations for lobbying regulation in their own political systems.

Sunday dinners and hot baths (or saunas in Finland) have a role to play. The Nordic countries can, to varying degrees, be described as societies with elitist small-country mentalities that translate into an idea that transparency resulting from lobbying regulation would interfere with the ‘informal governance’ of Sunday dinners and hot baths and hamper the direct interaction between elite actors and lawmakers. Across all the countries, surprisingly little attention is given to the popular (as opposed to elitist) legitimation of lobbying transparency and the idea that the public deserves to be fully informed about the activities of lobbyists.

The analysis of parliamentary debates in the Nordic countries reveals that despite this shared trait, there are also differences. This led me to suggest that as far as lobbying regulation is concerned, the countries can be divided into two groups. In the first group, Sweden, Denmark and Norway have discussed lobbying laws for the better part of thirty years, but legislation has never been seriously considered. Each of the three countries in this first group emphasises different reasons. Sweden is primarily concerned with the equality of political representation worrying that the registration of lobbyists would end up favouring affluent interest groups at the expense of those with fewer resources to influence activities. Denmark, by contrast, focuses on trust. There is no need for formal regulation since those who are insiders know how to ‘play the game’ and do so in a trustworthy manner. Norway combines a bit of both of its neighbours’ arguments, but also points out legal-technical difficulties in drafting lobbying legislation. In the second group, in which Finland and Iceland are found, the regulatory trajectory is starkly different. No parliamentary motions have been made although the prospect of lobbying regulation has occasionally been debated in both countries. Recent interest and, in the Finnish case, ongoing legislative work are the results of government-commissioned reports which, in turn, have been prompted by international developments. In this respect, the second group offers some evidence of Crepaz’s argument that non-regulated countries are affected by the pressure from international organisations to pass lobbying laws.

The analysis of parliamentary debates reveals another interesting issue. The Nordic countries have different ideas of whose transparency lobbying regulation is thought to increase. Among the countries in the first group, lobbying laws were put forward to increase transparency in the lawmakers’ activities. This is evident from the fact that MPs in the first group proposed rules that would have required the parliamentarians themselves to keep records of their contacts with lobbyists instead of a lobbying register. Proposed parliamentary accreditation schemes (Sweden) and policy-makers’ meeting diaries (Sweden, Denmark, Norway) are framed in the context of a parliamentary ethics regime and the moral discretion of individual MPs. Then again, in Iceland and Finland, the regulation of lobbying is put forward as a logical extension of the existing measures that push for more openness and transparency at all levels of government. Lobbying regulation increases transparency and imposes requirements on the lobbyists themselves, although it is clear that in doing so it will shed light on the conduct of lawmakers, as well.

Using the Nordic countries as a case study, the article seeks to nuance the debate about lobbying, regulation, and transparency. While the key consideration in all major lobbying reforms both in Europe and beyond has been, and still is, transparency, the relationship between transparency and lobbying regulation is more complex than traditionally perceived as the Nordic debates indicate. While in Sweden, Norway and Denmark lobbying regulation is seen as a measure to enhance the transparency of the legislature’s activities, Iceland and Finland advocate for lobbying regulation as a way to increase information about the role of lobbyists in law-making. This difference explains why the countries in the second group have embarked on the divergent policy path from the rest of the Nordic countries.

But the Nordic case offers more than theoretical insights into the relationship between lobbying regulation and transparency. The fact that the Nordic countries have chosen different routes – irrespective of their similar political and legal cultures, a shared ethos of open government and transparency, and a culture of cross-border regulatory harmonisation / emulation – makes them an intriguing democratic laboratory. The EU and others interested in the evolution of lobbying legislation should closely monitor policy developments in ‘the wild, wild North’.

About the author

Emilia Korkea-aho is Associate Professor of European Law and Legislative Studies at the University of Eastern Finland, Academy of Finland Research Fellow (2016–2021), and Visiting Fellow at the Maastricht Centre for European Law. Her research interests cover governance, in particular soft law, in the European Union and national contexts, as well as lobbying and its regulation. In 2020, she received the Academy of Finland Award for Social Impact for her work on lobbying and its regulation.

Credits: Jetro Stavén