Europe’s climate activists face ‘repressive tide’

Watchdogs warn of rights violations as governments crack down on disruptive protests.

Europe’s climate activists face ‘repressive tide’

MUNICH, Germany — Before Wolfgang Metzeler-Kick answers any questions, he makes sure to switch off his phone. “Per court order, they can tap it,” he says. 

Over the past year, Metzeler-Kick, 49, has spent several weeks in jail and racked up tens of thousands of euros in fines. His crime? Taking part in climate protests. 

The Bavarian activist has delivered manure to Germany’s agriculture minister, dug up the lawn in front of Olaf Scholz’s chancellery and tried to disrupt flights at Berlin airport to draw attention to the dangers of global warming. 

Mainly, he glues himself to roads to “disrupt our fossil-fueled routines,” as he puts it. “We have to stop doing business as usual,” he adds. “We’re hurtling toward disaster.” 

As a wave of similar protests sweeps Europe — targeting key infrastructure, causing travel chaos and sparking widespread public outrage — governments are getting tough on activists. 

Too tough, say human rights advocates. 

United Nations experts, the Council of Europe and other rights groups warn that European countries are increasingly employing disproportionate methods to stymie climate activism. 

“There are a number of human rights that are currently not being respected by EU states,” Michel Forst, the U.N. special rapporteur on environmental defenders, told POLITICO. “It’s a matter of great concern.” 

Forst is currently finalizing a report on the issue, which he plans to present to EU institutions in the coming months. 

Since he took office a year ago, he added, the situation for European climate activists has become “more and more difficult.” 

Bans, jail time and fines 

The crackdown comes as a growing number of European activists turn to direct action and civil disobedience, frustrated at what they see as inadequate government action in the face of mounting climate disasters

Activists have thrown soup at famous paintings, doused landmarks in liquid resembling oil or interrupted sports events. Groups like Last Generation in Germany, Austria and Italy or Just Stop Oil in the U.K. have adopted traffic blockades as their main method, often gluing themselves to roads.

a growing number of European activists are turning to direct action and civil disobedience | Loic Venance/AFP via Getty Images

Even Greta Thunberg, who inspired the Fridays for Future school strikes, isn’t just organizing marches anymore — last month, she was fined for disobeying police while blocking a Swedish oil facility, telling reporters: “We cannot save the world by playing by the rules.” 

Climate activists have only rarely committed serious acts of vandalism or clashed with law enforcement. Protests across Europe “have been for the most part … peaceful and non-violent,” Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, said in a statement.

Nevertheless, activists “are increasingly being met with repression, criminalisation, and stigmatisation,” she warned. 

The French government ordered the dissolution of the umbrella group Les Soulèvements de la Terre (Earth Uprisings) after a demonstration descended into a battle between police and protesters that left two demonstrators in a coma and injured 30 officers. A court, ruling the order violated activists’ freedom of assembly, suspended the decision earlier this month. French climate protesters often face “police brutality,” said Forst. 

The U.K. this year passed a new public order act described as “deeply troubling” by U.N. human rights chief Volker Türk. The legislation appears to specifically target environmental activists — criminalizing the tactic of protesters attaching themselves to objects or buildings, for example. 

Several British activists have been jailed for disrupting traffic this year; one protester was handed a three-year sentence. Regional authorities in Italy and Germany are investigating whether Last Generation is a criminal organization. 

After activists turned the water in Rome’s Trevi Fountain black, the Italian government unveiled new legislation imposing fines of up to €60,000 on anyone targeting cultural landmarks or artworks. In Belgium, 14 climate activists who protested at a gas terminal are facing fines of up to €8,000 and potential jail time. In the Netherlands, seven Extinction Rebellion activists were convicted of “sedition” this month for calling on others to join a protest on a motorway. 

Meanwhile, Austria is trying to deport a German activist for taking part in Last Generation protests. Several activists, mostly Italian, this month filed a complaint against France for using anti-terror legislation to stop them from crossing the border to attend a demonstration. 

The Council of Europe, the Continent’s top human rights watchdog, issued a sharp rebuke against such responses in June, warning of a “repressive tide.” 

German crackdown 

The German state of Bavaria, which is holding elections in October, has taken a particularly restrictive approach. Munich authorities in June admitted to wiretapping Last Generation members, as well as the group’s media hotline. 

Using controversial policing powers, the state has also held people for several weeks without charge to prevent them from protesting. 

Metzeler-Kick, an environmental engineer by training who joined Last Generation in 2022, has twice spent more than two weeks in preventive detention related to his participation in street blockades.

a wave of climate protests is sweeping Europe | Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images

Police also recently searched his partner’s home — where he was staying — as part of nationwide raids against the group. A search warrant, seen by POLITICO, states he is under investigation for “trying to form a criminal organization.”

As one of the reasons for the search, Munich prosecutors allege that Metzeler-Kick planned to sabotage a pipeline. In April 2022, he and other Last Generation activists tried to disrupt oil flow by activating emergency shut-off valves. 

Others, however, have been targeted for far less. 

Seven German activists whose homes were raided were accused of “organizing a fundraising campaign to finance … crimes” for their involvement in collecting donations for Last Generation.

In June, Bavarian police detained 28-year-old Last Generation activist Simon Lachner before he’d even left his home — to prevent him from gluing himself to a busy street. 

Susanne, a Munich-based activist with both Last Generation and Extinction Rebellion, said police raided her home during the 2021 IAA motor show, when protesters disrupted traffic around the city. Her phone, too, has been tapped, she says, and she’s been convicted of several offenses in recent years, such as disobeying police. 

“It’s disproportionate,” said Susanne, a marine biologist whose surname was withheld to protect her privacy. “It’s all peaceful. Is it really so radical to block traffic for 20 minutes? Is it fair to destroy people’s futures with criminal records, debt or prison for that?” 

U.N. rapporteur Forst said Germany and the U.K. “stood out” for penalizing climate protests with enormous fines. 

The southern Bavarian city of Passau, for example, banned several Last Generation activists from lingering in certain streets, setting fines at €10,000. Metzeler-Kick ignored the order, which he said prompted the city authorities to raise the fine to €60,000. 

While declining to give details on specific cases, a spokesperson for the Passau mayor confirmed the city had issued fines of up to €50,000 against climate activists who glued themselves to streets.

Passau permits many forms of protest, the spokesperson said. “However, glue actions on a public street or similar blockades are not a suitable climate protest, but rather represent an inappropriate disturbance of public safety and order.” 

Dwindling support  

The Council of Europe’s Mijatović acknowledged that some forms of protests are “not permissible” or may justify imposing fines.

The British government cites polls showing support for tougher action on road blockades to justify the new measures | Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

But, she said, climate protests “may indeed cause disruptions to ordinary life, including to road traffic. This may understandably disturb those uninvolved, but it does not automatically render an assembly or a form of public expression unlawful.” 

Forst agrees, pointing to states’ obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty covering freedom of speech and assembly. 

Yet law enforcement and governments have public opinion on their side. 

The British government, in its “factsheet” on the new public order act, even cites polls showing support for tougher action on road blockades to justify the new measures. 

In Germany, where Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said Last Generation has committed more than 500 criminal offenses as of June, a recent survey showed that popular support for the climate movement had halved between 2021 and 2023, with only 8 percent expressing any sympathy for road blockades. 

Blockade tactics have earned groups like Last Generation sharp criticism from across the political spectrum, including from within the climate movement

But Mijatović also warned that protesters are increasingly maligned by politicians and the media.

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin described Les Soulèvements de la Terre as “eco-terrorists.” Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer last month denounced road-blocking activists as “extremists” on par with the far-right Identitarian movement. 

Public animosity is increasingly translating into physical violence against activists. Germany is investigating more than 100 attacks against members of Last Generation. Activists have released videos of protesters getting beaten up by motorists or dragged away by their hair. 

“I do feel afraid,” said Susanne. “When you sit there, often you have a bumper right by your face. If a guy freaks out, I’m done for.” 

Yet for now, activists appear defiant. 

In mid-August, Last Generation restarted protests in Germany following a brief pause. French activists marched from western France to Paris to protest water management policies. And Munich’s IAA motor show will likely be the target of disruptive protests once again when it starts on September 5.

“There was a time when we were ignored. There was a time when we were ridiculed. Now is the time when we’re being attacked,” said Metzeler-Kick. “But that’s a phase we have to endure if we want to bring about change.” 

This article has been updated.