Repression of Climate Activists in Europe on the Rise
Wolfgang Metzeler-Kick makes sure to turn off his phone before responding to any queries. They are permitted to tap it by court order, he claims.
Metzeler-Kick, 49, has accrued tens of thousands of euros in fines and has served several weeks in jail over the past year. His offence? protesting against climate change.
In an effort to raise awareness of the dangers of global warming, the Bavarian activist has delivered manure to Germany’s agriculture minister, torn up the grass in front of Olaf Scholz’s chancellery and attempted to halt flights at Berlin Airport.
He says that the main reason he sticks to roads is to disturb our routines that are powered by fossil fuels. He continues, “We have to stop conducting business as usual.” We are heading straight for disaster.
Governments are cracking down on activists as a wave of similar protests sweeps through Europe, targeting crucial infrastructure, disrupting travel, and igniting widespread public outrage.
Too strict, claim supporters of human rights.
Experts from the UN, the Council of Europe, and other rights organisations warn that European nations are increasingly using exaggerated tactics to stifle climate activism.
According to U.N. special rapporteur on environmental defenders Michel Forst, a number of human rights are not currently being upheld by EU member states. It’s a very serious issue.
To present to EU institutions in the upcoming months, Forst is currently completing a report on the subject.
He continued by saying that since he took office a year ago, things have gotten harder and harder for European climate activists.
Bans, prison sentences, and fines
The crackdown occurs as more and more European activists, frustrated by what they perceive as insufficient government response to escalating climate disasters, turn to direct action and civil disobedience.
Activists have disrupted sporting events, doused landmarks in a liquid that looked like oil, and thrown soup at famous paintings. Traffic blockades are the primary tactic used by organisations like Last Generation in Germany, Austria, and Italy or Just Stop Oil in the United Kingdom. These organisations frequently attach themselves to roads.
Greta Thunberg, who was the driving force behind the Fridays for Future school strikes, is no longer just a march organiser; last month, she was fined for defying police by blocking a Swedish oil facility and telling reporters: “We cannot save the world by playing by the rules.”
Rarely have climate activists engaged in serious vandalism or confrontations with the police. The majority of protests in Europe have been peaceful and non-violent, according to a statement from Dunja Mijatovi, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights.
But she cautioned that repression, criminalization, and stigmatisation are becoming more commonplace for activists.
After a protest turned into a brawl between police and protesters that left two protesters in a coma and injured 30 police officers, the French government ordered the dissolution of the umbrella organisation Les Soulèvements de la Terre (Earth Uprisings). Earlier this month, the decision was suspended by a court after it was determined that the order violated activists’ right to assemble. According to Forst, police brutality against French climate protesters is common.
This year, the U.K. passed a new public order act that Volker Türk, the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights, called extremely troubling. The law appears to be directed specifically at environmental activists, criminalising, for instance, the tactic of protesters affixing themselves to things or structures.
This year, several British activists were sentenced to prison for obstructing traffic, including one who received a three-year term. Regional authorities are looking into whether Last Generation is a criminal organisation in Germany and Italy.
The Italian government unveiled new legislation imposing fines of up to €60,000 on anyone targeting cultural landmarks or works of art after activists turned the water in Rome’s Trevi Fountain black. 14 climate activists who demonstrated at a petrol terminal in Belgium could be sentenced to jail time and fines of up to €8,000. Seven Extinction Rebellion activists in the Netherlands were found guilty of sedition this month for encouraging others to participate in a protest on a highway.
Austria is currently attempting to deport a German activist who participated in the Last Generation protests. This month, a number of activists—mostly Italian—filed a complaint against France accusing it of using anti-terror laws to prevent them from entering the country to attend a protest.
In June, the Council of Europe, which oversees human rights on the Continent, sharply criticised such responses and forewarned of a rising tide of repression.
The German state of Bavaria has adopted a particularly stringent stance ahead of its elections in October. In June, Munich police acknowledged listening in on Last Generation members and the group’s media hotline.
The state has additionally detained individuals for a number of weeks without charge to stop them from protesting using dubious police tactics.
Metzeler-Kick, a trained environmental engineer who joined Last Generation in 2022, has twice been placed in preventive detention for longer than two weeks due to his involvement in street blockades.
As part of recent nationwide raids against the group, police also recently searched his partner’s residence, where he was staying. He is being looked into for attempting to start a criminal organisation, according to a search warrant seen by POLITICO.
Munich prosecutors claim that Metzeler-Kick planned to sabotage a pipeline, which is one of the reasons for the search. He and other Last Generation activists attempted to stop the flow of oil in April 2022 by turning on emergency shut-off valves.
But some people have been targeted for much less.
In connection with their involvement in gathering donations for Last Generation, seven German activists had their homes searched, and they were charged with planning a fundraising effort to finance a crime.
Simon Lachner, a 28-year-old Last Generation activist, was detained by Bavarian police in June before he even left his house in an effort to stop him from taping himself to a busy street.
When protesters caused traffic disruptions throughout the city during the 2021 IAA motor show, Susanne, a Munich-based activist with both Last Generation and Extinction Rebellion, claimed that police raided her home. She claims that her phone was also tapped, and in recent years, she has been found guilty of several offences, including disobeying police.
Susanne, a marine biologist whose last name was withheld to protect her privacy, said that it was disproportionate. It’s all quiet. Is a 20-minute traffic ban really that radical? Is it right to ruin people’s futures by sending them to prison, racking up debt, or both for that?
Germany and the United Kingdom stand out for punishing climate protests with hefty fines, according to U.N. rapporteur Forst.
For instance, the Passau city in southern Bavaria has fined several Last Generation activists €10,000 for loitering in certain streets. Metzeler-Kick claimed that because he disobeyed the order, the city authorities increased the fine to €60,000.
A spokesperson for the mayor of Passau confirmed the city had fined climate activists who taped themselves to streets up to €50,000 but declined to provide specifics on individual cases.
The spokesperson said that Passau permits a variety of protest activities. However, blocking off a public street with glue or engaging in similar blockades are inappropriate disturbances of public safety and order rather than a suitable form of protest.
Mijatovi of the Council of Europe acknowledged that some forms of protest are prohibited or may be grounds for imposing fines.
But she added that there is a chance that climate protests will disrupt daily life, including traffic. Although those who are not involved may be understandably upset, this does not automatically make a gathering or a form of public expression illegal.
Forst concurs, citing states’ responsibilities under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a convention that protects the right to free speech and the right to assemble.
Governments and law enforcement, however, have the support of the general public.
Even polls indicating support for tougher action against road blockades are cited by the British government in its factsheet on the new public order act to support the new measures.
A recent poll revealed that public support for the climate movement in Germany, where Interior Minister Nancy Faeser claimed Last Generation had committed more than 500 criminal offences as of June, had decreased by 50% between 2021 and 2023, with only 8% expressing any sympathy for road blockades.
Blockade strategies have drawn harsh criticism for groups like Last Generation from all political quarters, including the climate movement.
However, Mijatovi also cautioned against the growing media and political smear campaigns against protesters.
Les Soulèvements de la Terre were labelled eco-terrorists by French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. Last month, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer blasted activists who block roads, comparing them to far-right Identitarians.
Physical violence against activists is becoming more and more common as a result of public hostility. More than 100 attacks against members of the Last Generation are being looked into in Germany. Videos of protesters being assaulted by drivers or dragged away by their hair have been released by activists.
Susanne confessed, “I do feel scared. You frequently have a bumper right next to your face when you sit there. I’m out if a guy freaks out.
But as of right now, activists seem resolute.
After a brief pause, Last Generation resumed their protests in Germany in the middle of August. To protest water management policies, French activists marched from the west of France to Paris. When it opens on September 5, the IAA motor show in Munich is likely to face disruptive protests once more.
Once upon a time, we were disregarded. Once upon a time, we were made fun of. We are currently under attack, claimed Metzeler-Kick. But if we want to effect change, we must persevere through that stage.