By Konrad Putzier
Europe’s Pirate Parties, spawned by a need across Europe for a political movement to campaign for internet freedom, hope for a boost from the revelations of American whistleblower Edward Snowden. But instead, his revelations have only highlighted the movement’s narrow appeal in most countries where it has appeared.
A year ago, the movement that became popular by campaigning against government surveillance was hailed as an emerging political force. Since then the Pirates have lost much of their support—battered by the growing realization that their platform was narrow and failed to address most of Europe’s most pressing problems—the economy and jobs
Many Pirates hoped that the Prism Scandal, unleashed by Snowden, which has raised concerns over government spying, could turn their fate around. And yet Europe’s Pirates remain marginalized. Their failure to benefit from Snowden’s revelations indicates that the internet isn’t as central a political issue as many have thought.
The success story of Europe’s Pirates began in 2006 with the founding of the Swedish party. Campaigning against the forced closure of a popular file-sharing platform called Pirate Bay and campaigning for an unregulated internet, they surprisingly won 7.13 percent of the vote in the Swedish election for the European parliament in 2009, which earned them two seats in Strasbourg.
Soon after the founding of the Swedish party, Pirate Parties emerged in Austria, France, and Great Britain. None ever won a significant share of the vote, but all of that was quickly forgotten in the glow of the Pirates’ success in Germany.
In September 2011, the Pirates surprised many political analysts by storming into Berlin’s state assembly, a feat they repeated in the states of Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia in 2012. Throughout the year, they consistently polled some 10 percent countrywide.
The Pirates’ appeal lay in their recognition of the importance the internet holds in modern society, something most mainstream European parties tended to ignore, and in their offering an alternative to an increasingly unpopular political establishment.
The Pirates, it seemed, understood the priorities of young voters better than anybody else. In May 2012, German novelist Juli Zeh wrote in an editorial for The Guardian that the Pirate Party “has the potential to become nothing less than Germany’s new liberal social-democratic party”.
Now, more than a year later, Germany’s Pirates have been polling between 2 percent and 4 percent in opinion polls. In itself, this is disappointing to the party faithful, but even more so in light of the shockwaves Edward Snowden’s revelations have sent through the continent.
Many Europeans have been incensed over the extent of NSA-spying, especially America’s targeting European institutions and offices. Germans have been especially sensitive— historically averse to government surveillance after their experiences with Stasi and the Gestapo. In a recent poll, 69 percent of Germans said they were unhappy with the way Angela Merkel was handling the scandal. It was Merkel who insisted that trade talks with the United States go forward, though French President Francois Hollande had urged they be postponed. With national elections in Germany coming up in September, this should be a huge boost to the Pirates, who have all but trademarked internet privacy.
Sascha Lobo, an influential columnist for Spiegel Online, recently described the Prism scandal as “a penalty shot” for the Pirates, “in front of an empty net, with the wind in their back and the pitch sloping downward. Why do we still worry that they’ll miss?”
One big reason is infighting and lack of effective leadership, which have given the party’s image a severe dent. But perhaps most importantly, Germans just don’t seem to care enough about internet privacy to base their vote on it.
Germans may disapprove of NSA spying and of Merkel’s response to it, but not enough for the chancellor’s still very high approval ratings to take a hit. In the most recent national poll, 70 percent said the Prism scandal will have little or no influence on their voting decision. The absence of protests is equally telling. Countrywide demonstrations against Prism over the past weekend drew only a few thousand participants.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Europe’s Pirate Parties cannot become a political force by simply campaigning for internet freedom. Germany’s Pirates were most successful when they were able to campaign not just on internet issues, but also on demands for greater participatory democracy with an expanded use of online plebiscites, as they did in Berlin.
Iceland’s Pirates recently showed how it can be done. In April they entered the country’s parliament with 5.1 percent of the vote, in part by campaigning on broader issues such as freedom of expression, transparency and corporate involvement in politics.
If Europe’s pirates want to become the “new liberal social-democratic party”, they need to demonstrate that they are more than just a party for hackers. The internet may have already come to dominate our lives, but in Europe it doesn’t yet decide elections.
Konrad Putzier is an editorial assistant at the World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Jürgen Brocke]
Note: An earlier version of this article stated the Swedish party was founded in 2009. This is incorrect, it was in fact founded in 2006, followed by the founding of Pirate Parties in other European countries that same year.