Simon Lachner had plans to glue himself to a German city thoroughfare in June to call public attention to climate change. Instead, he ended up in police custody before he’d even left his home.
Lachner, 28, is one of thousands of activists caught up in a European crackdown on a wave of direct action protests that gathered pace last year demanding urgent government action against climate change.
Roadblocks on major motorways in Britain have caused traffic chaos, protests at oil installations in Germany have disrupted supplies, and in France, thousands of activists and police clashed over water usage, leaving dozens injured.
Determined to prevent such protests from strengthening further, states in Germany and national authorities in France are invoking legal powers often used against organised crime and extremist groups to wiretap and track activists, Reuters found, based on conversations with four prosecutors, police in both countries and more than a dozen protesters.
In Berlin alone, police have spent hundreds of thousands of hours working on more than 4,500 incidents registered against the “The Last Generation” and “Extinction Rebellion” groups, according to previously unreported data from police.
State authorities in Germany are widely using preventative detention to stop people from protesting, including holding at least one person for as long as 30 days without charge, which is permissible under Bavarian law, the prosecutors consulted by Reuters said.
Lawmakers passed new surveillance and detention laws in France in July and in Britain in May, with Britain making it illegal to lock, or glue, yourself to property.
France has used an anti-terrorism unit to question some climate activists, the police confirmed to Reuters.
The governments in Germany and Britain said the response to the protests was aimed at preventing damaging criminal actions. The French government declined to comment but has previously said the state must be able to combat what it calls “radicalisation”.
Activists say they turned to direct action after the failure of other protest strategies. Civil disobedience has a long history in social movements, including in the fight for the vote for women and the U.S. civil rights movement.
Reuters could not establish whether European countries were coordinating policies or vigilance of the protesters, beyond normal cooperation between police forces.
A French government source with knowledge of the matter said intelligence services across Europe cooperated to monitor protesters’ plans and activities.
Responding to a Reuters question about sharing intelligence about climate activists between European governments, Germany’s interior ministry said it held regular information exchanges with foreign partners, but declined to give details. The police and French interior ministry declined to comment. Britain’s National Police Chiefs’ Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment and its interior ministry did not comment.
Germany does not have a national policy targeting climate activists, who the government considers mainly non-extremist, a spokesperson for the country’s interior ministry said.
However, two of Germany’s states are considering whether to outlaw a prominent group in the movement.