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Europe grapples with Last Generation climate protests

May 28, 2023

Police crackdowns on climate activists in Germany and Italy show that protests are gaining attention. Authorities are navigating both public opinion and criminal law in their response.

Rome / Trevi fountain | Italy
Image: Mauro Scrobogna/LaPresse/ZUMA/dpa/picture alliance

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

In Germany, police and prosecutors launched their first nationwide crackdown on the Last Generation group with 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 Trevi Fountain in Rome. Their banner demanded "an immediate end to public subsidies for all fossil fuels."

Michele, a member of Last Generation Italy, said it was a symbolic act. "The black vegetable carbon represents fossil fuels that pollute the water," she told DW. "We decided to deprive tourists of the pleasure of clear water for a few hours, so that they understand what climate change means."

Trevi fountain in Rome
Italian activists pour black liquid into the Trevi fountainImage: Allesandro Penso/MAPS via REUTERS

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.

"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, the ongoing climate catastrophe 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.

"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.

Emilia Romagna flooding
Flooding linked to climate change has caused devastation and threatened agriculture in the regionImage: Francesco Amendola/LaPresse/AP/picture alliane

Cars in Germany, culture in Italy

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

Targets have included the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, which was sprayed with orange paint. In Rome, the Spanish Steps were hit with black paint, and a work by Vincent Van Gogh was splashed with pea soup.

Italian authorities are taking a rigorous approach to combatting these actions. In the northern city of Padua, the Last Generation is being investigated on suspicion of the forming a criminal organization, with the aid of the law enforcement unit that normally specializes in combating terrorism.

Blockades in the UK

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 Britain 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? "Different countries also have different traditions where the kinds of actions movements take are concerned. There is a constant shift across different parts of the movement that responds to the opportunities as well as to what movement groups see as the most important issues of the day."

Berlin | Last Generation Protest
In Germany, activists have largely concentrated on road trafficImage: Olaf Schuelke/imago images

Critics warn of further radicalization

In Germany, Last Generation activists recently exchanged views with Transport Minister Volker Wissing, though 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. 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 Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the country's domestic intelligence agency, 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.

"The choice to employ harsh measures is exactly that: A conscious choice. Governments respond to these types of activism not generally because they are obliged or 'helpless'," Parks said. "If we consider the responses to other forms of activism that could equally be described as disruptive in recent years, for example against vaccinations and the use of masks, it's clear that a choice is made as to how to respond."

This article was originally written in German.

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