European Pirates Ahoy? Pirates Aim to Echo German Success Across Continent
The surprise success of the German Pirate Party is fuelling a pan-European trend. Pirates from 20 countries gathered in Prague over the weekend to cement an international network -- but they are still a long way off from establishing a Europe-wide party.
It may be a coincidence, but it is nonetheless revealing. The international umbrella organization of Pirate Parties (PPI) held its annual meeting at a downtown building in Prague over the weekend. Called "The Hub Prague," the building once housed a printing factory, but these days it is a co-working space -- an open office for networkers, professionals and the creative class.
That reflects the message of the 200 pirates who traveled from 20 countries to Prague over the weekend, where they called for new forms of democracy and citizen participation in the digital age. They shared their experiences and ideas from home as well as the goal of establishing a pan-European network. There is even talk of creating a European Pirate Party (PPEU) for the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Organizers said the Prague event had been intended as the "first step towards a coordinated program for the European Elections in 2014."
Such aspirations are kept deliberately vague, however, since the creation of a pan-European Pirate Party still remains a distant dream. There are a growing number of Pirate Parties in Europe, but most are still in their infancy. In Prague over the weekend, PPI incorporated Pirate parties from Greece, Tunisia, Croatia and six other countries into the umbrella organization. The members are united by a vision of a networked pirate movement which crosses national boundaries.
But most of these groups will first have to consolidate their power at home before they can go international. The Greek offspring, for example, has seen its membership roster grow to a few hundred, underscoring how much work Greece's Pirates and those in other European countries still have cut out for themselves. It is also unclear just how many international offshoots the Pirate Party really has. Some groups, including those in Croatia, Ukraine and Slovenia, run Facebook pages and are drafting their statutes, but they haven't officially registered as parties in their countries yet.
'We Need Something Else'
The European movement is still in an early phase, but it has nonetheless been inspired by the German Pirates' recent electoral successes. "We've established a brand," Berlin-based Pirate and blogger Julia Schramm said during the Prague conference. The Swedish founding father of the Pirate Party, Rick Falkvinge, even described the German Pirates as the "core of our movement." With some 25,000 members, the German Pirates enjoy adouble-digit percentage of support among voters according to public opinion polls.
Their success has touched off euphoria. In Prague, the bearded Tunisian Slim Amamou advocated for more direct participation by voters. "We sense there is a crisis of representative democracy, we need something else," he said. Amelia Andersdotter, a Swedish Pirate who has represented the party in the European Parliament since November 2011, preferred to discuss mobile phone roaming fees and tax issues. Sporting a blue sweater and a cartoon t-shirt, the 24 year old held out a few pages torn out of a notepad, with the pages trembling lightly in her hand. She appeared accessible and nothing like the cliché of the shielded EU parliamentarian -- a fact which might help explain the Pirates' success.
But it is also clear that the Pirates still have to prove that their performance is more than just a short-lived political fad. In Sweden, the movement fizzled out just as quickly as it appeared on the scene. After a successful European Election in 2009, the Swedish Pirates missed their chance to enter into the national parliament one year later. In part, the Pirates there failed because other political parties reacted swiftly by incorporating Internet and data privacy protection issues into their own platforms. To avoid a similar demise, the German Pirates have sought to establish broader political platforms. This approach has not been without controversy: Just two years ago, Germany's Pirate movement was considered too highly scattered in terms of its political focus. Few would have dreamt at the time that the party could ever enjoy the success in opinion polls its is experiencing today.
In terms of its extremely relaxed atmosphere, the European Pirates gathering recalled the early days of the movement in Germany. During a lunch break that had been extended from one to two hours, people sat between anti-ACTA posters, chatting merrily and munching on cookies as speeches were given. Some even missed their moment on the stage. "Young Pirates Sweden? Not present. Pirate Party Florida? Not present", the meeting's leader said stoically. Murmerings could also be heard of a dispute unfolding between the Catalan and Spanish Pirates. Technical glitches led to the disruption of video messages from Pirates in New Zealand and Canada.
It is hard to imagine that this is the crib for a pan-European Pirate movement. In Prague, a few Pirates argued it would be premature to found a European party. They instead want to boost their network and help support the newly formed groupings. But Berlin Pirate Schramm has no doubt about the future of the European project. "After all," she says. "A potential Pirate is sitting in every village where there is a computer."