In the 2016 parliamentary elections in Iceland, the Pirate Party celebrated its largest ever electoral success, winning 14.5 percent of the popular vote and securing 10 of the 63 seats in the Althing. While the Icelandic Pirate Party is now considered the most successful Pirate Party in Europe, the result could have turned out even better. In April 2016, amidst the height of the Panama Papers scandal that saw Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson resign from office, several opinion polls projected that the Pirates could capture as much as 43% of the popular vote. With both the Independence Party and the Left-Greens having failed to form a government, the Pirate party was given the task in early December. Currently, the negotiations are still locked in a stalemate, raising the possibility of new election.
Given the success of the Icelandic Pirates, it is worth asking how relevant pirate parties are for the rest of Europe.
What do the Pirates stand for?
The first Pirate Party was founded in Sweden in 2006 and gained particular prominence three years later, when the Stockholm District Court convicted the four co-founders of popular torrent site “The Pirate Bay” for promoting copyright infringement. On the day of the court’s decision, the Swedish Pirate Party saw an influx of 9,000 new members.
This newfound popularity of the Pirate Party spread across the continent and allowed it to capture two seats in the 2009 European Parliamentary election. The success on the European stage inspired similar political movements to organize themselves in various EU member and beyond. Yet, apart from its electoral successes in Sweden, Germany and Iceland, pirate parties remains a fringe phenomenon in European politics.
Common to all pirate parties in Europe is an emphasis on the goals outlined in the Uppsala Declaration of 2009, which stresses: (1) privacy and civil rights both in the off- and online domain, (2) greater government transparency, (3) copyright law and patent law reforms, (4) the use of free and open software, open data, and open access whenever possible, and (5) direct democracy by involvement of citizens in political decision-making process.
The list of priorities varies from country to country. For example, the political agenda of the German Pirates also includes issues such as LGBTQ rights and basic income guarantees, while the majority of pirate parties are also in favour of decriminalising the personal use of controlled substances.
Transparency, whistle-blowers and the Pirate Parties
The push for more transparency in governments and open access to information makes pirate parties a natural ally to whistle-blowers and platforms like Wikileaks.
One of the key - yet unsuccessful - proposals of the Icelandic Pirates during their election campaign was granting political asylum to former NSA contractor and whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Birgitta Jónsdóttir, the party leader, is also a Wikileaks volunteer and co-editor of Collateral Murder, the video clip leaked by Bradley Manning and released by Wikileaks that showed US military airstrikes on civilians in Iraq. The Swedish Pirate Party has also lent a helping hand to Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, having offered to host Wikileaks servers in 2010.
More recently, the Panama Papers scandal drew attention to the Pirate’s call for more transparency. Forcing elites to act in accordance with the citizens’ interest instead of their own became to be a key message in the Icelandic Pirate’s electoral campaign.
Criticism and controversy
The Pirate Parties have been surrounded by controversy on various fronts. Here are just a few examples:
In February 2015 members of the Pirate Party in Sweden were arrested in relation to an online drug store that distributed legal highs that were subsequently linked to the deaths of 15 people. Swedish Pirate Party officials naturally distanced themselves from the incident, but the political damage was done.
In September 2015 the Austrian Pirate Party launched an advertisement campaign about state surveillance on various porn sites, featuring Austrian Minister of Interior Johanna Mikl-Leitner with the subheading, “Johanna wants to watch you.” Unsurprisingly, the ad was discontinued within the same month.
But the most notorious Pirate Party scandal occurred in September 2016 when Gerwald Claus-Brunner, German Pirate Party member and representative in the Berlin state parliamentary, killed a young man before committing suicide. This, along with the #bombergate scandal and continuous bickering within the party, ultimately undermined the electoral performance of the German Pirates. Currently they are represented in just three of Germany’s 16 state parliaments, and German Pirate Party member Julia Reda remains the only Pirate Party representative in the European Parliament.
Getting organised on the international level has been profoundly challenging for the Pirates. In 2010, the Pirate Party International (PPI) was founded with the aim of creating a forum for international cooperation among pirates from across the globe. The PPI initially managed to unite several pirate parties under its umbrella, but in the end the organisation was stifled by a number of organisational and communication problems. Ultimately, a large portion of the most successful Pirate Parties, including the ones from Australia, Iceland, the UK, and Sweden left the PPI.
Apart from internal challenges, the Pirates are also confronting strong external criticism. Most mainstream political parties consider the pirates to be radical, inexperienced, populist, and naïve. The pirates’ proposed reforms on copyright law and specifically the idea that non-commercial file sharing (including torrenting) should be allowed, is also unsurprisingly strongly opposed by the entertainment industry.
Are the Pirates relevant?
With the exception of Iceland, the popularity of the Pirate Parties in Europe has been steadily decreasing in recent years. In the 2014 European Parliamentary elections for example, the Pirates lost one of their two seats.
Overall, the Pirates are appealing to a small segment of society, namely: young, highly educated, tech savvy people, living in the urban environment. This limits their electability. But the gradually increasing prominence of digital issues – and the anti-establishment mood – offers an opportunity for greater exposure.
They have already shown an ability to capitalise on these opportunities. Christian Engström, Swedish Pirate, and then Member of the European Parliament, was vocal in opposing the EU’s 2006 Data Retention Directive, which was subsequently struck down by the European Court of Justice in 2014.
The Pirates were also leading supporters of net neutrality, which was endorsed by the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications in August 2016. Julia Reda, the only remaining Pirate in the European Parliament noted that “[t]his is a victory for civil society, whose relentless involvement secured the principles of a free and open internet in Europe.”
The Pirate Parties also vigorously opposed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a controversial international agreement for intellectual property rights enforcement that was rejected by the European Parliament in 2012.
The examples mentioned are obviously not the sole results of the Pirate Parties lobbying efforts. Yet, their input and mobilization of civil society must be acknowledged.
Indeed, while the Pirates represent at times radical ideas and lack significant political experience, the established parties would do well not to dismiss them too quickly as irrelevant or out of touch with reality. After all, despite their internal problems, the Pirates have proven their ability to muster popular support on digital issues. And in the context of today’s anti-establishment sentiments, it would be foolhardy to write them off.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.