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“Could You, Would You, Should You?” Regulating Cross-Border Travel Through COVID-19 Soft Law in Finland

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 February 2021

University of EasternFinland; email:
European University Institute, Florence, Italy and Bonavero Institute, University of Oxford, UK.


In the coronavirus pandemic that has swept the world, the Finnish Government, like many of its peers, has issued policy measures to combat the virus. Many of these measures have been implemented in law, including measures taken under the Emergency Powers Act, or by ministries and regional and local authorities exercising their legal powers. However, some governmental policy measures have been implemented using non-binding guidelines and recommendations. Using border travel recommendations as a case study, this article critically evaluates governmental soft law-making. The debacle over the use of soft law to fight the pandemic in Finland revealed fundamental misunderstandings about the processes and circumstances under which instruments conceived as soft law can be issued, as well as a lack of attention to their effects from a fundamental rights perspective.

© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 For the present purposes, the “Government” refers to the structure for governmental and administrative matters consisting of the plenary session and the ministries (“the executive branch”), whereas the “Cabinet” is used more narrowly to refer to a body which convenes for the general governing of the country, consisting of the Prime Minister and other ministers.

2 Emergency Powers Act (1552/2011), with the unofficial English-language version available at: <> (accessed 27 November 2020). See also VNK/2020/31 <> (accessed 27 November 2020).

4 Note that even during the state of emergency most of the measures were adopted using the regular powers of the authorities. The most important measure taken with reference to the Emergency Powers Act was the cordoning of the Uusimaa region between 28 March and 15 April 2020. Finland’s capital Helsinki is contained in the region, which is Finland’s most populous one.

5 VNK/2020/81 <> (accessed 27 November 2020).

7 The Cabinet issued a recommendation on 12 March 2020 on the need to avoid visits to nursing homes for the elderly. On 20 March 2020, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health issued the guidelines, which called on municipalities to instruct the heads of 24-hour care units in their area to impose a ban on non-essential visits. These guidelines were updated on 16 April 2020. According to the statement of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, the decision made by the head of the operational unit to ban visits is based on the Communicable Diseases Act, s 17 according to which the health care and operational unit must systematically combat treatment-related infections. Specific references to the recommendations can be found in the decision referred to in note 8 below.

8 EOA, 22 June 2020, dnro 3232/2020 <> (accessed 27 November 2020).

9 Yle, “Professori Tuomas Ojanen: Suositukset ja lakiin perustuvat määräykset menivät sekaisin vanhusten hoivakotienh vierailuohjeissa” (25 June 2020) <> (accessed 27 November 2020) (authors’ translation). Disability organisations have subsequently submitted a collective complaint against Finland under the European Social Charter <> (accessed 27 November 2020).

10 F Snyder, “The Effectiveness of European Community Law: Institutions, Processes, Tools and Techniques” (1993) Modern Law Review 64.

11 For different Member States’ practices, see M Eliantonio et al (eds), EU Soft Law in the Member States: Theoretical Findings and Empirical Evidence (Hart Publishing 2021, forthcoming).

12 Finnish soft law literature is limited, but some exists. See, eg M Scheinin, Ihmisoikeudet Suomen oikeudessa (Suomalainen Lakimiesyhdistys, 1991), pp 39–56, M Scheinin, “Oikeus, demokratia, informaatio – ajankohtaisia kehityspiirteitä”, in A Rosas (ed) Oikeus, demokratia, informaatio: oikeusnormien ja oikeuslähteiden muuttuminen (Lakimiesliiton Kustannus 1993) pp 16–26; or T Määttä, “Soft law kansallisen oikeuden oikeuslähteenä. Tutkimus oikeudellisen ratkaisun normipremissin muodostamisen perusteista ympäristöoikeudessa” (2005) Oikeustiede – Jurisprudentia, T Määttä, “Näkökulmia sääntelytarkkuuteen: Lainsäädäntölähtöisestä analyysistä elävään oikeuteen”, in J Tala (ed), Sääntelytarkkuuden ongelmia (Hakapaino Oy 2010).

13 S Lagoutte et al (eds), Tracing the Roles of Soft Law in Human Rights (Oxford University Press 2016).

14 Finnish COVID-19 soft law resembles decisional soft law in Senden’s classification; see L Senden, Soft Law in European Community Law (Hart Publishing 2004).

15 The Constitution of Finland (731/1999), with the English-language version available at: <> (accessed 27 November 2020).

16 Section 80.

17 Opinions of the Constitutional Law Committee 11/2000 vp and 12/2000 vp. See also V-P Viljanen, “Onko eduskunnan asema lainsäädäntövallan käyttäjänä muuttunut?” (2005) Lakimies 1050, 1059–61.

18 Opinion of the Constitutional Law Committee, 11/2000 vp.

19 Finland is a country of mitigated dualism, which means that a domestic Act (or in some cases decree) is required for making international obligations as part of the Finnish legal order (incorporation), but such practice is extensive and not exceptional, resulting in what some authors call de facto monism: see M Scheinin, supra, note 12. For the position of EU law in Finland, see T Ojanen, “EU Law and the Response of the Constitutional Law Committee of the Finnish Parliament” (2007) 52 Scandinavian Studies in Law 206.

20 Government Rules of Procedure, s 3(11) and (12).

21 If it is necessary to confer on a central administrative agency the power to issue administrative orders concerning public authorities, this central agency power to issue administrative orders must be expressly provided for by law.

23 In some cases, an internal regulation binding on a public authority may also have non-administrative effects with regard to details which are technically or otherwise insignificant. See Lainkirjoittajan opas <> (accessed 27 November 2020).

24 ibid.

25 ibid.

26 Eliantonio et al, supra, note 11.

27 Communicable Diseases Act (1227/2016) in English: <>. Political control over authorities has been debated intensely. In our view, the regional state administrative agencies are under the authority of the ministry and the minister. Their political control is therefore permissible, unlike central administrative agencies (keskusvirastot). The latter are not subject to political control and are governed only by normative decisions.

28 The Constitutional Law Committee (PeVL 6/2003 vp, p 4; PeVL 20/2004 vp, p 4; PeVL 30/2005 vp, p 6; PeVM 5/2013 vp, pp 3–4) has considered that provisions of law concerning the adoption of instructions are unnecessary, as the authority may issue instructions in the field of its statutory duties without prior authorisation. According to the Committee, such authorisations are liable to blur the distinction between binding legal rules and non-binding recommendations. This does not preclude the authority from explaining in its decision that it is competent to issue instructions and guidelines in the field of its statutory function.

29 See <> (accessed 27 November 2020).

30 Email from the Chancellor of Justice to the Cabinet and ministries (28 April 2020) (on file with authors).

31 ibid.

32 See <> (accessed 27 November 2020). According to the archived information available on the Wayback Machine, the website became active on 23 April 2020.

33 Travel recommendations were only subsequently listed as one of the “Restrictions during the Coronavirus epidemic”.

34 SM/2020/20 <> and SM/2020/21 <> (both accessed 27 November 2020). One of the first formulations concerning the closing of national borders was probably contained in this summary: see point 16 <> (accessed 27 November 2020).

36 ibid.

37 The Border Guard Act (578/2005).

38 Regulation (EU) 2016/399 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 9 March 2016 on a Union Code on the rules governing the movement of persons across borders (Schengen Borders Code).

41 Disclosure: on 28 April 2020 the second author submitted a complaint to the Chancellor of Justice concerning the use of recommendations without a proper legal basis to regulate and restrict the right of Finnish citizens and others to leave the country and return there, and on 19 May 2020 submitted another complaint concerning the same phenomenon generally in respect of the crossing of Finland’s internal EU borders.

42 SM/2020/27, see <> (accessed 27 November 2020).

43 The memorandum is available in Finnish: see <> (accessed 27 November 2020).

44 Reference is made to the so-called Lapp Codicil, which was an annex to a border treaty <> (accessed 27 November 2020).

46 EOAK/3257/2020 <> (accessed 27 November 2020).

47 ibid (authors’ translation).

48 As of 10 July 2020, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control reported 74,333 cases, 5,500 deaths and 102 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the last 14 days in Sweden (10 million inhabitants), while the same numbers for Finland (5.5 million inhabitants) were 7,273 cases, 329 deaths cumulatively and 1.8 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants <> (accessed 31 August 2020).

49 See, for instance, K Hiltula, “Voisiko Suomi sulkea länsirajansa, jos Ruotsin koronatilanne karkaa käsistä? Oikeusoppineiden mukaan ei, mutta muita suojautumiskeinoja on” (Yle, 24 June 2020), based on interviews with professors Martin Scheinin and Pauli Rautiainen <> (accessed 27 November 2020).

50 P Juntti, “Rajavartiolaitosta arvostellaan toimivaltuuksien ylittämisestä – viranomaisen mukaan rajanylityksistä on luovuttu vapaaehtoisesti, mutta moni suomalainen kokee tulleensa käännytetyksi” (Yle, 26 May 2020), including comments by professors Martin Scheinin and Markku Suksi <> (accessed 27 November 2020).

51 See also points 11 and 19 of the Commission Guidelines, which emphasise that clearly sick people should not be refused entry but should have access to appropriate health care: Covid-19 Guidelines for border management measures to protect health and ensure the availability of goods and essential services 2020/C 86 I/01 OJ C 86I, 16 March 2020, pp 1–4.

52 Communication from the Commission, “COVID-19: Temporary Restriction on Non-essential Travel to the EU”, COM(2020) 115 final. The European Council endorsed the recommendation on 17 March 2020 <> (accessed 27 November 2020).

53 COM(2020) 115 final, p 2.

54 COM(2020) 148, 8 April 2020.

55 COM(2020) 222, 8 May 2020.

56 Communication from the Commission, “On the third assessment of the application of the temporary restriction on non-essential travel to the EU”, COM(2020) 399 final.

57 ibid, p 3 (original emphasis).

59 A Färding and S Varpula, “Matkustusrajoitukset kevenevät maanantaina, näistä maista voi pian matkustaa Suomeen – Ohisalon mukaan linja on “korosteisen varovainen” (Helsingin Sanomat, 8 July 2020) <> (accessed 27 November 2020) (authors’ translation).

60 Regulation (EU) 2016/399, Chapter II on temporary reintroduction of border control at internal borders.

61 For pointing out the mistaken assumption, see L Senden and A van den Brink, Checks and Balances of Soft EU Rule-Making, Study for the European Parliament, Policy Department C: Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs, PE 462 (2012) p 21.

62 Supra, note 30.

63 ibid.

64 O Ştefan, “COVID-19 Soft Law: Voluminous, Effective, Legitimate? A Research Agenda”, European Papers, European Forum, 3 June 2020, pp 1–8.

65 P Rautiainen, “Katsaus valmiuslain soveltamisen kuudenteen viikkoon”, Perustuslakiblogi, 27 April 2020 <> (accessed 27 November 2020). Only on 10 December 2020 did the Cabinet acknowledge the situation and decide that residents of the border communities and the Sámi could cross the land border between Finland and Sweden and between Finland and Norway (including the lakes) and the border rivers also through other than the designated border crossing points <> (accessed 10 December 2020).

66 J Strömberg, “Mitä jokaisen olisi hyvä tietää yli 70-vuotiaiden uusista koronaohjeista” (Yle, 20 May 2020) <> (accessed 27 November 2020).