The Pirate Party Rises

The young party is poised to be the new durable European protest movement. The Greens have competition.

A new force is rising on the European political landscape. The Pirate Party—an anticopyright amalgamation of politically active digital natives, most in their twenties and early thirties—stands at the precipice of finding a permanent place in Continental politics. The party emerged in the wake of protests of antipiracy legislation that brought tens of thousands of Europeans into the street as well as ongoing frustration with the euro-zone crisis and the monopolistic nature of European political parties.

The next two months will bring regional elections in three bellwether states in Germany, and each is expected to result in substantial gains for the party. Its rise has led many to compare the Pirates to an earlier iteration of issue-based iconoclasts, the Greens. Could Europe see the creation of the first durable protest party of the millennial generation? And if so, do the Pirates represent a successor, challenger or ally to the Greens?

The New Digital Counterculture

The European press has highlighted the political clash between different generations of the counterculture, pitting the millennial Pirates’ rise against that of the baby-boomer Greens. There is evidence both see the other as a direct competitor; in an open call for party slogans in North Rhine Westphalia, one person suggested “Torture the Greens, Vote for the Pirates.”

Nevertheless, the similarities between the Greens and the Pirates are striking. Both are intensely subversive in content and means of action. Both names hint at antiestablishmentism. In U.S. political terms, the Pirates seem to tap into the libertarianism of Ron Paul supporters, the collectivist ethos of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the distrust of institutions seen in both. As such, the Pirates defy the normal ideological spectrum. But as with the Greens in the 1970s and early 1980s, today’s Pirates have only a proto-ideology with a fungible value system, which makes the party look disparate and almost schizophrenic.

The bêtes noires of the Pirates are patent and copyright laws, which they claim are antiquated and antithetical to the creative process. Many of the party’s supporters are, after all, consumers of illegally downloaded music and movies. And by injecting a new element into European political life and inevitably the Continent’s foreign policy, the Pirate Party is forcing an accommodation similar to the rise of ecological politics a generation ago.

Like the Greens, the Pirate Party has international appeal, reflecting political memes taking root across the Continent. The Pirates’ first prominent representation was not in a national parliament but in the European Parliament. The most vociferous debates on party issues—the anticounterfeiting treaty ACTA, net neutrality, data transfers between governments, and common patent and copyright standards in the European single market—take place as much in Brussels as in national capitals. And the party has natural reservoirs of support from its Nordic base to the postcommunist countries of Central Europe, where residual suspicion of government censorship and domestic surveillance is high.

And even though the Pirate Party arose in Sweden and has representatives throughout Europe, the ultimate political laboratory for its success or failure will be Germany. The proportional voting system there has often allowed the country to serve as a testing ground for movement parties—some fleeting, others permanent.

Origins: Nothing New under the Sun

Since its 2006 inception, the party’s development has been anything but linear. It was founded in reaction to the European Union’s Copyright Directive, a 2001 mechanism for enforcing the World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty. Implemented across the EU in 2005, the law tightened enforcement of copyright violations on the Internet. Because Sweden hosted a number of media-sharing sites that suddenly found their activities branded illegal, many were galvanized to become more active at the European level.

The term "pirate" was first used to refer to unauthorized music downloaders in Sweden in 2001, when the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry launched the Anti-Piracy Bureau to combat illegal downloading. Later, a group of artists responded with an art installation called the Piracy Bureau. Hence “pirate” became a protest moniker and was most prominently used by the Swedish file-sharing website Pirate Bay, a hotbed for the digital-rights movement.

In 2009, Swedish courts, under legislation drafted as a result of the EU Copyright Directive, handed down a series of jail terms and fines to Pirate Bay founders. The move led to a swelling of the party’s membership and the election of two members of the European Parliament (MEPs).