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Europeâ€™s political pirates have broken into two fleets as the anti-establishment movement tries to retain relevance 15 years after its anarchic beginnings.Â
One group has adopted some traditional party structures many in the movement long eschewed â€” and may finally become part of an EU coalition government.Â
The other has stuck to its anti-establishment sensibility, remaining loosely organized â€” and has mostly stayed on the outside looking in.
The divergence has left the political movement in a transitional phase nearly a generation after it first burst onto the scene, fueled by a growing wariness of mainstream politics and vowing to bring a tech-first, radically transparent ethos to politics.Â
While the broader movement has stagnated in many European countries â€” the success short-lived as parties struggled with infighting and conventional politics â€” some of the more developed parties are making gains. There are currently four pirate members in the European Parliament, as well as pirates in the national legislatures of Luxembourg, Iceland and the Czech Republic. A pirate is even serving as mayor of Prague.Â
And come October, the Czech pirate party may finally secure enough votes in the general election to enter the governmentâ€™s ruling coalition. That would make them the first pirate party to be part of a national government within the EU â€” a major accomplishment. And it would put them in a rare league with other new age European protest parties, like the 5Stars movement in Italy, that actually vaulted into political power on pledges to use technology to bring people directly into government decision-making.Â
â€œItâ€™s a new wind,â€ said Ivan BartoÅ¡, head of the Czech Pirates, stressing the themes that have made the pirates popular for a small-but-vocal slice of Europeans: â€œNo oligarch or big sponsorsâ€ and â€œcompletely transparent.â€Â
Outsiders become insiders
Even as some pirate parties have grown increasingly willing to look like â€” and act like â€” a traditional political party, they insist they still represent a different approach.Â
Pirates first gained attention touting a tech-savviness, appealing to people who cared about issues like legalizing free digital copies of books and music. Some members helped create software that gave average people a direct say in what policies that pirate party pushed.
â€œWhatâ€™s really special about our movement is that we understand technology, we understand how important digital rights are,â€ said German Pirate MEP Patrick Breyer. â€œWe have quite a radical approach to transparency.â€Â
Still, the pirates who have managed to carve out a role in national and European politics say there is also a need to be pragmatic and work across party lines.
â€œIn hard times, cooperation always gives you better results than competition,â€ said BartoÅ¡, the Czech leader.
Their political rivals, however, donâ€™t necessarily see the pirates as pragmatic, saying their approach makes it difficult to tackle sensitive policy issues.Â
The pirates presented â€œsomething newâ€ that â€œwas sexy in the Czech political scene,â€ said MEP TomÃ¡Å¡ ZdechovskÃ½, a member of the right-leaning Czech party KDU-ÄŒSL. But, he added, â€œin many things, they are very naÃ¯ve.â€
In the early years, the pirate movement gained adherents for the same reason it would soon stumble â€” it hated politics.Â
â€œNone of us wanted to be politicians,â€ said Rick Falkvinge, who founded Europeâ€™s first pirate party in Sweden in 2006.Â
Initially, he said, the party was narrowly focused on â€œcopyrights, patents and privacy.â€Â
Much of the partyâ€™s early momentum came from the debate around Pirate Bay, an illegal file-sharing service that Swedish police raided in mid-2006.Â
â€œWe were just so frustrated with politicians not understanding something that was fundamental to our daily lives as the internet,â€ said Falkvinge, who is no longer directly involved with the party.Â
The Swedish pirates quickly inspired other pirate parties across Europe. The group took 7.1 percent of the popular vote in Sweden during the 2009 European Parliament election, a major leap for such a young party that trashed mainstream politics.
â€œIt was something as simple as not being allowed to copy chapters of books during my studies,â€ said Mattias BjÃ¤rnemalm, a policy advisor for the Green group at the European Parliament, recalling his decision to join the Swedish Pirate Party shortly after its founding.
By 2011, the German Pirate Party took nearly 9 percent of the vote in a local Berlin election, entering the state parliament.Â
But the early electoral success in Germany was quickly quashed. Within the party, members say there was a shift in press coverage â€” from treating the movement as a colorful political curiosity to simply covering â€œgossip,â€ â€œargumentsâ€ and â€œunfortunate things people posted on Twitter,â€ said Breyer, the German MEP.Â
â€œAt first, the German Pirate Party was hyped by the media,â€ he argued. â€œAfterwards, basically the opposite was the case.â€
There were also accusations from outside the party that the German Pirates had taken on members with far-right views. Separately, a grizzly murder-suicide in 2016 involving a pirate politician took its toll.
Former German pirate politicians point to the partyâ€™s internal divisions and lack of organization.
â€œThe partyâ€™s bodies even ignored their own decisions on how to run things, what to say,â€ said Martin Delius, an ex-pirate who is now a member of the left-wing Die Linke party.Â
It is not unusual, though, for a popular movement to gain swift traction as people rush to its insurgent message, and then falter as the movement rapidly grows unexpectedly.
â€œIt was a very common trajectory,â€ said BjÃ¤rnemalm, the European Parliament adviser who is a member of the Swedish Pirates. â€œThey have a first success, and then they implode because they didnâ€™t know how to deal with that success. And a lot of the time, the members unify more on what theyâ€™re not than what they agree on.â€
A second life
Despite the electoral disappointments in countries such as Sweden and Germany, the pirate party has lived on â€” and done well in some countries.Â
Parties that ultimately won seats in national parliaments grew â€œincrementally,â€ said Sven Clement, president of Luxembourgâ€™s pirate party and a member of the countryâ€™s parliament.Â
â€œWe can be dogmatic when it counts but are often open to negotiate the best and most pragmatic solution,â€ he said, pointing out that Luxembourgâ€™s pirates have voted with both the government and the opposition, depending on the issue.Â
In Luxembourg, the pirates have emerged as one of the few alternatives in a political system that has traditionally strayed very little from the status quo.
Clement, one of two pirates in the Luxembourg parliament, has developed a reputation as a straight-talker willing to take on the government.Â
He was one of the rare voices critical of the Grand Duchy when the countryâ€™s role as a tax haven hit international headlines earlier this year, and has taken the government to court in a bid to make it more transparent. He also led the charge against covid vaccine queue jumpers and forced the country to commit to building a privacy-friendly covid app.
Luxembourgers like what they see. Clementâ€™s popularity has surged in the pandemic, with his approval ratings at one point climbing more than any other politician.
Other pirate parties that broadened beyond their founding policy issues â€” copyright and patent reform, digital rights â€” have also done well.Â
The Czech Piratesâ€™ BartoÅ¡ said the movementâ€™s ethos can be applied to all government decisions. Emphasizing data analysis, for instance, will help craft â€œgood agricultural reform, or pension reform, which is needed,â€ BartoÅ¡ argued.Â
Thereâ€™s also a growing realization in countries like Germany that pirates need a well-constructed ship. That means political staffers. It means parliamentary assistants.
â€œI think we are experiencing an increasing professionalization,â€ said the German Piratesâ€™ Breyer, who like the other pirates in European Parliament sits with the Greens/European Free Alliance group.Â Â
Then there are other countries across Europe with smaller pirate parties where a strongly anti-establishment vibe and diffuse organizational approach persists.Â
In France, for instance, the pirate partyâ€™s raison dâ€™Ãªtre is to overhaul the entire system.Â
â€œEmmanuel Macron is the king of France,â€ said Florie Marie, a spokesperson for the French Pirate Party who also serves as vice chair of the board of the European Pirate Party.Â
â€œThe French constitution and the French Republic â€” I want to change it all,â€ she said.
The result is that two types of pirate parties have emerged, said Clement, the president of Luxembourgâ€™s pirate party.
There are the few â€œwell-establishedâ€ parties with burgeoning political infrastructure, Clement said. Then there are â€œall the other parties â€” and itâ€™s very difficult sometimes to find the common ground, or the consensus between those two approaches,â€ he added.Â
Nevertheless, Clement emphasized that the two groups can work together.Â
â€œThe parties that have success need to do more to help the parties that have less success,â€ he said, predicting smaller parties â€œwill mature as well.â€
A question of impact
If the Czech Pirate Party does become part of the countryâ€™s ruling coalition after the October election, it would be the first real test of whether the movement can turn its philosophy into concrete polities on the national level.Â
Pirate critics have long insisted the movementâ€™s few elected politicians are ill-equipped for the realities of policymaking, especially on issues that naturally clash with calls for complete transparency.Â
â€œThe naivety of these young IT guys â€” itâ€™s really very huge,â€ said Czech MEP ZdechovskÃ½, adding, â€œwe cannot be transparentâ€ on issues like intelligence and the military.Â
â€œIf the things are transparent too much, you are giving information â€” especially about the critical structure of the Czech Republic or of the European Union â€” to our enemies,â€ he said.Â
But current and former pirate party members insist the movementâ€™s value goes beyond whether it can simply enter a ruling coalition.Â
â€œItâ€™s the transnational aspect that has kept the movement alive,â€ said the Swedish Piratesâ€™ BjÃ¤rnemalm. â€œIt doesnâ€™t matter if we have national setbacks, weâ€™re still relevant, and our ideas are still being pushed somewhere.â€
Cornelius HirschÂ contributed data analysis. Vincent Manancourt contributed reporting.