Italian activists now face huge fines: Where else in Europe is getting harsh with protesters?

Under Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italy's right-wing government is cracking down on climate protest tactics.
Under Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italy's right-wing government is cracking down on climate protest tactics. Copyright AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert
By Angela Symons
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Climate protestors could face fines of up to €60,000 for damaging monuments or cultural sites in Italy.

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Under Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italy is cracking down on everything from English language to raves and synthetic meat to ChatGPT.

The right-wing PM’s latest bugbear is climate protestors.

On Tuesday (11 April) the Italian government announced plans to bring in hefty fines for people who damage monuments or cultural sites.

The penalties are aimed at activists who in recent weeks have made headlines for their public stunts highlighting the climate crisis.

Two environmental activists from the Last Generation protest group are the latest to receive a large fine as well as a suspended jail sentence.

Why is Italy ramping up fines for criminal damage?

At the start of April, members of climate activism organisation Last Generation turned the waters in Rome’s La Barcaccia fountain black to draw attention to the country’s water crisis.

This is the latest in a long line of eye-catching protests, ranging from activists glueing themselves to a famous painting in Florence to hurling paint at Milan's La Scala opera house.

Under the new law, actions like this would be punishable with fines of between €10,000 and €60,000. This will be additional to existing fines and prison sentences for criminal damage.

This week, two members of the Last Generation climate protest group were fined €30,000 and given a suspended prison sentence for damages during a stunt last year. 

The activists glued themselves to the base of the ancient Laocoon statue housed in the Vatican museums. 

Italy’s Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano says the fines will be used to cover the cleanup costs of such actions.

The bill also targets vandalism and antisocial activity carried out by tourists in Italy - such as last year’s incident of an Australian riding a moped through Pompeii. It is yet to pass through parliament.

Laws like this one have been criticised as a ‘weapon of mass distraction’ from more urgent issues like the energy and cost of living crisis.

The UK is also cracking down on climate protest tactics

Across Europe, activists have been blocking roads and runways, targeting monuments and disrupting oil refineries to draw public attention to the climate crisis.

The legal response has been most severe in the UK, which ramped up fines and prison sentences last summer for those defacing public monuments.

Damage of less than £5,000 (€5,675) was previously subject to a maximum three-month prison sentence. This has now been raised to 10 years.

This was partly in response to widespread targeting of statues in 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests but also targets an ongoing wave of climate actions.

The UK has also cracked down on ‘disruptive’ protests, giving police wider powers to shut them down and arrest participants. In some incidents, protestors have been detained for six months before trial due to a backlog of cases.

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The recently announced Public Order Bill criminalises the protest tactic of individuals attaching themselves to others, objects or buildings to cause serious disruption. The offence will carry a maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both.

How do other European countries deal with climate protestors?

In Germany, disruptive climate campaigners have also met with harsher charges in recent months. Munich banned disruptive protests in December after activists glued themselves to runways. Some German city mayors, however, have negotiated with activists to achieve mutually agreeable solutions.

French ministers have branded activists as ‘eco-terrorists’ and arrested several people during ongoing anti-reservoir protests that turned violent last month. But maximum punishments for disruptive activism have not always been handed down in France.

Six Final Revolution protestors who blocked roads during the 2022 Tour de France were handed down a shared €500 fine rather than the maximum two years in prison.

In Belgium, the protestors who targeted Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ painting in the Netherlands in October were sentenced to two months in prison with one month suspended.

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Why do climate activists stage disruptive protests?

Protest groups usually carry out peaceful protests then escalate disruption if their demands are not met. This sometimes works - in 2019, the UK parliament declared a climate emergency following two weeks of protests in central London by Extinction Rebellion. Disruption has also increased in sync with the escalating climate crisis, with many activists feeling that they have few options left to get the attention of policymakers

Many officials have acknowledged the role activists have played in raising awareness about the urgency of the climate crisis. UN Secretary-General recently gave activists an official advisory role, after appointing seven activists from around the world to the UN Youth Advisory Group.

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