THERE is a clock on the impressive-looking Libertas.eu website counting down the days to 4 June and the kick off for the European election across 27 counties. But could it also prove to be a doomsday clock for the most ambitious political project in Europe in decades: Declan Ganley's audacious bid to create a pan-European party from nothing?
The next 18 days are crucial in that regard, but there is no shortage of EU insiders predicting, and hoping, that Ganley and Libertas are going to fall flat on their collective faces.
Questions are being asked about Libertas's approach to recruiting candidates, the absence of a detailed policy programme (the website continues to say "it will be published in the coming weeks") and what critics claim to be an increasingly Eurosceptic flavour to a party that avows to be pro-European.
It wasn't the best of weeks for Libertas. In the Czech Republic, a potential stronghold, its campaign suffered a setback after one of its most prominent candidates – sitting MEP Vladimir Zelezny – was convicted of tax evasion and was forced to resign as a Libertas candidate. Then there were the embarrassing claims that former Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa had received €100,000 for appearing at the recent Libertas rally in Rome and hadn't actually endorsed Libertas.
But a little like a boxer adopting a rope-a-dope strategy, Libertas continues to take the blows and come back for more. On Friday, it announced yet another link-up with a political group, this time in Slovakia, where it has entered an alliance with the Conservative Democrats of Slovakia and the Civic Conservative Party, endorsing their 13 candidates.
Libertas also proudly declared that its website was the most visited political website in the world, a claim which tallies nicely with its stated aim to create a new pan-European movement "from the ground up".
But its critics claim that far from being built from the ground up, Libertas is top heavy and utterly lacking in grassroots foundations. They point to the increasing frequency of Libertas announcing link-ups or alliances in individual countries, rather than developing its own candidates. And they say that, such is the disparate nature of these groups, it would be impossible to agree a common policy platform.
"They have adopted a scattergun approach and taken a lot of shortcuts" [in coming up with candidates across the EU] is the verdict of one political observer, adding that a lot of the candidates seem to be "fringe of the fringe". Others are more blunt: "You go to a country and look for the most obscure crackpots and sign them up," said one political strategist.
European affairs minister and long-time Ganley critic Dick Roche has accused Libertas of associating with the "exotic pond life of EU politics".
Whether that is fair or not, there is no denying the differences and contradictions between some of those standing under the Libertas branding. From libertarian liberals like Eline van de Broek in the Netherlands and secularists in Spain to right-wing, anti-immigration and ultra-religious candidates elsewhere, there is a distinct lack of cohesion in the Libertas movement.
And it prompts the question as to whether there has been vigorous enough vetting of candidates. As one source not unsympathethic to Libertas put it: "Are some of these people on the Libertas bus for the ride only to f**k off when they arrive at the destination?"
Of more immediate concern to Libertas – and its stated goal of delivering 100 MEPs – is that the party, so far at least, isn't showing well in opinion polls across member countries.
Trinity politics lecturer Dr Michael Marsh, who is one of the people behind the predict09.eu website, which uses statistical data, including opinion polls, to predict the outcome of the EU elections, says talk of 100 seats is "completely unrealistic".
"It's very, very hard to see how they could get beyond 15 or 20," said another EU expert, while others the Sunday Tribune spoke to believe that even that tally looks optimistic.
They say that, even in the bigger countries, Libertas needs to get above the 5% threshold of support to win seats and there is currently no evidence of that happening.
But there are some grounds for optimism within the party. In France, Libertas has teamed up with eurosceptic Viscount Philippe de Villiers. De Villiers and his Mouvement Pour la France have expressed highly controversial views on Muslim immigrants, but he is a high-profile sitting MEP and he should deliver some seats for Libertas.
In Latvia, Libertas has signed up former prime minister Guntars Krasts, a sitting MEP who was in the UEN group that Fianna Fáil was a part of. Although EU sources say the Libertas candidates are not registering in polls in Latvia, Krasts' high-profile means he cannot be ruled out.
In nearby Finland, there has been some form of cooperation with the True Finns, a right-wing, anti-EU party that has five seats in the Finnish parliament. Its leader Timo Soini is a devout Catholic. (Finland is a largely Lutheran country.) He converted to Catholicism in Killarney, while inter-railing in Ireland. He is also a Millwall supporter. A good populist politician, Soini has a fair chance of winning a seat, EU watchers say, although there are strong suggestions that he is now distancing himself from Libertas.
The party should also get some candidates elected in the Czech Republic and in Poland. In the latter country, it is running over 100 candidates, a proportion of whom have links with the fundamentalist Catholic group the League of Polish Families. One Libertas candidate, Senator Ryszard Bender, has provoked controversy in the past with comments that Auschwitz was "not a death camp, it was a labour camp".
But the organisation is clearly struggling in the other main EU states. In Spain, Libertas Ciudadanos de Espana is led by controversial former TV boss Miguel Duran. Blind since infancy, Duran is best known for heading the hugely powerful and wealthy ONCE organisation that represents blind and disabled people. In 1998, he was charged with insider trading and other financial irregularities but was acquitted by the Spanish supreme court. Duran is pro-European but says his gripe is with the way Europe is being run. Despite his high profile, Spanish politics is dominated by the big national and regional parties and gains for Libertas seem unlikely.
The same goes for Germany. Ganley's group had suffered a serious setback there when it failed to meet the deadline for registering its own candidates. In response, it has formed an alliance with the German AUF Partie, a small Christian family-oriented party, but this won't deliver MEPs.
In Italy, Libertas has formed an alliance with L'Autonomia, a group of parties that includes La Destra, led by Francesco Storace and Teodoro Buontempo, an extreme-right-wing politician who in the past has expressed his nostalgia for Mussolini. Again, EU pundits believe it is unlikely to win any seats there. This is also likely to be the case in the UK, where Libertas is failing to make an impact.
So unless Libertas's fortunes change dramatically over the next three weeks, it seems as if it will be doing well to make it into double figures in seat terms – nowhere near enough to form a grouping at the EU parliament.
Some who have watched Libertas closely believe the organisation is paying the price for prevaricating in the wake of the Lisbon referendum defeat in Ireland last June, arguing that momentum was lost at that point and it wasn't until October that Libertas really got going in terms of the European elections.
However, EU experts believe the problems go much deeper. With most European voters voting on national issues, it's doubtful whether a pan-European organisation has much appeal. Particularly one made up of such diverse parts. "It's very hard to build something durable especially when you don't have a clear message. Advocating more democracy and more accountability is not an original message. There is a lack of a clear brand beyond Ganley-ism. They are exceptionally dependent on him. Without him, it's very difficult to see how they would survive," says one EU insider.
However, it would be unwise to write off Ganley, who has proven to be a formidable campaigner. As with all new parties, it's the campaign that makes them, and the next three weeks are crucial. Libertas clearly has huge financial resources at its disposal and its marketing and promotion – heavily influenced by world-renowned political strategists Lynton Crosby and Joe Trippi – is top notch.
To get as far as he has – with hundreds of candidates across the vast majority of the member countries – is an incredible achievement for an organisation that started less than three years ago as a think-tank. The sense though is that the hardest part has to be achieved.