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Europe grapples with crackdowns on Last Generation protests

May 29, 2023

Crackdowns on climate activists in Germany and Italy are evidence that protests are gaining attention. Authorities must navigate both public opinion and criminal law in their response.

Police car firing water cannon against protesters
In the Netherlands, police used water cannons against climate activistsImage: Abdullah Asiran/AA/picture alliance

Over the last week, climate activists featured heavily in the European news cycle. 

Over the weekend, Dutch police arrested some 1,500 activists in the Netherlands when protesters blocked a section of a motorway near the Dutch parliament.

In Germany, police and prosecutors launched their first nationwide crackdown on the controversial Last Generation group with nationwide raids on May 24. The climate activists are charged with the "formation or support of a criminal organization" in Munich, which led to home searches and the shutdown of their website.  

Four days earlier, Last Generation activists in Italy had staged an attention-grabbing protest, pouring a black liquid, charcoal diluted with water, into the crystal clear Trevi Fountain in Rome. Their banner demanded "an immediate end to public subsidies for all fossil fuels." 

Why do some see Last Generation as a criminal organization?

Michele, a member of Last Generation Italy, told DW that it was a symbolic act.

"The black vegetable carbon represents fossil fuels that pollute the water," she said. "We decided to deprive tourists of the pleasure of clear water for a few hours, so that they understand what climate change means." 

Tough response in Italy

Rome's mayor Roberto Gualtieri strongly condemned the protest, saying that some 300,000 liters of water would have to be replaced, requiring a significant amount of energy. 

The activists were arrested and now face draconian penalties: between €10,000 and €60,000 ($10,700 and $64,000) in damages and criminal penalties for charges of vandalizing cultural property.

Climate protesters pour black liquid into Rome's Trevi Fountain
In Italy, climate protesters poured black liquid into Rome's Trevi FountainImage: Mauro Scrobogna/LaPresse/ZUMA/dpa/picture alliance

"Politicians have strongly condemned such protest actions from the beginning, and Giorgia Meloni's government has so far shown no understanding," Andrea De Petris, scientific director of the Center for European Policy (cep) in Rome, told DW.

"However, it will be interesting to see now if society's perception will change in the face of the current environmental disaster."

With 14 deaths following devastating rains and floods in the province of Emilia Romagna, climate change is becoming increasingly noticeable in Italy. So far, De Petris said, much of the Italian population has taken a negative view of the Last Generation protests. Sentiments have been similar in Germany, with only a minority believing that politicians are doing too little to protect the climate.

"Opinion could possibly turn a little now because of the storms. There are people who definitely share the goals of Last Generation, but not the means," De Petris added. 

Cars in Germany, culture in Italy

While the Last Generation protests in Germany, which have recently involved activists gluing themselves to roadways, are mainly directed against car usage and traffic policy, activists in southern Europe are hitting a different nerve in Italy: cultural assets.

Targets have included the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, which was sprayed with orange paint. In Rome, the Spanish Steps in were hit with black paint, and a work by Vincent Van Gogh was splashed with pea soup, not to mention the recent Trevi Fountain protest.

Climate activists glued to Goya paintings in Madrid in November 2022
Climate activists glued themselves to Goya paintings in Madrid in November 2022Image: FuturoVegetal via REUTERS

Italian authorities are taking a rigorous approach to combatting crimes by climate protection activists. In the northern city of Padua, Last Generation is being investigated for the formation of a criminal organization with the aid of the state unit that specializes in combating terrorism and extremism.

Blockade stop in the United Kingdom

Europe's climate activists do not appear to coordinate their efforts. Anyone who calls the Last Generation in Germany to get contact information for fellow activists in Italy is referred to their homepage.

Neither is there a unified means of protest. While the Last Generation in Spain glued themselves to two paintings by Francisco de Goya in Madrid, members of Extinction Rebellion in the United Kingdom announced a temporary halt to their blockade protest in January.

Anyone who wants to understand what makes the climate activism movements in Europe tick should talk to Louisa Parks. A political sociologist at the University of Trento in northern Italy, Parks has spent years studying how targeted campaigns and activism influence international politics.

Her conclusion? "Countries have different traditions when it comes to the nature of protest actions. These are also subject to constant change, in each case depending on political possibilities."

Critics warn of further radicalization

In Germany, Last Generation activists recently exchanged views with Transport Minister Volker Wissing. But such a meeting would be unthinkable in Italy.

Throughout Europe, politicians are faced with the question of how to deal with organizations like the Last Generation, however. Diverse public opinions on the subject in Germany are indicative of how difficult this task can be.

While conservative Christian Democrats favor having the group monitored by the country's domestic intelligence agency, some political scientists have criticized the recent raids as disproportionate. They say that such an approach could radicalize activists even further.

The United Nations has called for the moral voice of young people to be protected. 

"Harsh action is a conscious decision about how to deal with activists who make certain demands. Governments are not coerced or 'helpless'," Parks said. "When we look at other forms of disruptive activism in recent years, such as opposing vaccinations or the use of masks, it becomes clear that a choice is made about how to respond."

This article originally appeared in German.

Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.
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