EU Watch

​Restrictions on Peaceful Protest Intensified: Trend Analysis

Liberties Rule of Law Report 2024

by Jonathan Day

The right to peaceful protest was severely restricted across Europe in 2023, with many blanket bans selectively targeting pro-Palestinian and climate demonstrations, according to Liberties’ latest report on the state of the rule of law in the EU.

The freedom to assemble and peacefully demonstrate in support of or opposition to issues we care about is a fundamental part of democracy. For citizens, it is the freedom to join together to express their views publicly and without fear of reprisal. For politicians, it is the opportunity to understand what issues are really important to their people, and even how important an issue is. Peaceful protests also tell people that there are others — often many others — who care deeply about a certain issue that they themselves might care about, helping to mobilise citizens around common causes.

This makes peaceful protest an extremely powerful right — so powerful that many governments want to limit it. This was especially true last year in countries across the EU, as highlighted by the newly released Liberties Rule of Law Report 2024. Reports from civil society organisations on the ground in Member States paint a bleak picture of the state of freedom of assembly. In some cases, restrictions were new and reactionary; in others, existing restrictions were tightened or selectively enforced to stymie certain groups of protesters, in particular climate activists.

Protest restrictions targeted pro-Palestinian protests

Across Europe, as in many other places around the world, protests broke out following the onset of the Israel-Hamas conflict. Both the conflict itself and the harrowing humanitarian crisis in Gaza have created a strong desire among people of all backgrounds to exercise their right to peaceful protest. Liberties was quick to warn that this environment could invite undue restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly, and our analysis confirms these fears. Many Member States responded by severely restricting or even denying this right, and almost always with respect to pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

In Germany, several cities passed blanket prohibitions on pro-Palestinian assemblies. Several courts declared such blanket bans unlawful in this context, but other courts upheld them. In Bulgaria, Sofia banned multiple peaceful protests in October and November that were organised by citizens demanding an end to hostilities in Gaza and the admission of humanitarian aid. In the immediate aftermath of 7 October, a university in Sweden prohibited political demonstrations on its campus. This ban extended to individuals gathering in groups and expressing political opinions in ways visible to passers-by, as well as displaying political views on posters. The Swedish Minister for Education, Mats Persson, endorsed this decision.

The use of specific slogans also faced restrictions, potentially limiting not only the freedom of assembly but also the freedom of expression. In the Czech Republic, Prague cancelled a pro-Palestinian demonstration featuring the slogan “from the river to the sea”. In Estonia, this same slogan prompted police to detain five people during a demonstration in Tallinn and take them to a police station for further questioning. Since October 2023, police in Hungary have banned all demonstrations intended to commemorate civilian victims who died in Gaza. In Belgium, there were reports that Brussels police ordered people carrying a Palestinian flag in the street to conceal it.

Climate activists singled out by authorities

Last year saw the continuation of authorities selectively targeting peaceful climate demonstrations. Whether it’s because politicians take large donations from automotive or the fossil-fuel industry, or local authorities view climate activists as a nuisance, we have observed no let up in protest bans in this area. In the Netherlands six climate activists from Extinction Rebellion (XR) were arrested in January and their houses were searched. They were arrested the week before a planned peaceful protest, during which they wanted to block a road in The Hague, based on charges of incitement because they were promoting the XR road blockade.

Since the end of 2022, several cities in Germany have imposed extensive bans on climate protests, leading to fines of up to €3,000 for violations. Munich, for example, banned climate-related protests on over 300 streets for almost a month in December 2022, as well as for the entire duration of the International Motor Show in August 2023. The city of Stuttgart issued the most severe restrictions, imposing a general ruling that banned all unannounced sit-ins by climate activists from July 2023 until the end of the year. The duration of this ban raised serious doubts about its proportionality.

In the Czech Republic, the city of Prague attempted to limit Last Generation activists by changing their demonstration route, but a court overturned this change. In Italy, the proposed Bill No. 693 is clearly aimed at climate activists and seeks to limit their right to protest, including by punishing conduct that is already prosecuted under the penal code (Article 518-duodecimos), further aggravating the sanctioning system. Similarly, in Belgium a draft bill to introduce the new offence of “maliciously undermining the authority of the state” into the Penal Code appears aimed at curtailing the freedoms of climate activists.

Liberties condemns all unjust restrictions on the freedom of assembly. Politically motivated blanket protest bans or the selective application of restrictions are undemocratic and have no place in the EU. We call on member state governments to fully protect peaceful protest, which is not only a fundamental right, but also serves as a vital communications link between the people and their representatives.


Download the full report here.

Read related articles

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See previous rule of law reports

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