Heightened unrest and disruptions at protests to outlast COVID-19 restrictions as groups increase activity across the region : Europe Analysis

Executive Summary

  • 2020 witnessed a surge in large-scale protest movements, despite the imposition of lockdowns.
  • The implementation of COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings, including demonstrations, led to a surge in anti-government and anti-police sentiment, increasing the associated risk at demonstrations, as well as the prevalence of more extremist activists at protests.
  • While these restrictions are being lifted regionwide, the potential for unrest at protests is expected to remain elevated.
  • Controversial protest groups are expected to capitalize on heightened anti-government sentiments, increasing the potential for more violent protests regionwide.
  • With that, governments have become increasingly interested in enacting legislation prescribing demonstrations.
  • Those operating or residing in Europe are advised to maintain vigilance in the vicinity of public gatherings due to the potential for unrest.
  • Organizations are advised to monitor protest groups within their sector due to increased direct targeting of companies.

Current Situation

  • 2020 saw a surge in anti-government protest movements related to the implementation of restrictions on gatherings, including demonstrations, in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19. Large-scale anti-lockdown protests have been recorded regionwide, with protests in Germany and the UK attracting turnouts in the tens of thousands. These protests have witnessed high levels of unrest, including clashes between protesters and police and subsequent arrests for breaching COVID-19-related restrictions.
  • Anti-lockdown protests have been attended by numerous groups, including far-right, neo-Nazi, anti-vaxxer, far-left, anti-fascist, and other anti-establishment groups. These protests have contributed to an increase in far-right extremist activity regionwide, with Germany recording a four percent increase in the number of far-right extremists in the country in 2020 compared to 2019.
  • Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN, USA, in May 2020, large-scale protests were recorded across Europe in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, with many witnessing clashes with police and counter-demonstrators. Protests on the same issue in 2016 were significantly smaller and largely peaceful. For example, in London, the 2016 protests saw attendance in the high-hundreds to low-thousands and transpired peacefully. In 2020, protests regionwide saw attendance in the high-thousands and lasted for several weeks. As these protests were staged during the pandemic, they violated restrictions on gatherings, resulting in significant levels of unrest and hundreds of arrests.
  • While environmentalist groups initially slowed their protest actions in the first half of 2020, groups such as Extinction Rebellion (XR) became increasingly active in the second half of the year. In September 2020, thousands of XR activists participated in the group’s “Week of Action” in the UK. Additionally, XR offshoots, namely Animal Rebellion, Money Rebellion, and Ocean Rebellion, became active in 2021. In April 2021, Money Rebellion launched a campaign targeting banking, causing disruptions in London and Paris. In June, XR and its offshoots Animal Rebellion and Ocean Rebellion launched multiple protest actions targeting the G7 Summit held in Cornwall, UK.

Assessments & Forecast

Anti-police sentiments surged in 2020, resulting in clashes between security forces and protesters being a latent risk

  1. The enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings, including protests, has resulted in an increase in anti-government sentiment across Europe. With regard to demonstrations, protest movements that have previously been peaceful, have witnessed instances of unrest at demonstrations due to the enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions and subsequent breaking up of gatherings.
  2. The emergence of the BLM protests in Europe attracted turnouts in the high thousands and frequent instances of unrest in the summer of 2020. This included the controversial destruction of monuments associated with European countries’ colonial past, including the defacement of a Winston Churchill statue in London’s Parliament Square. Consequently, while not related to COVID-19, the BLM protest movement intensified the already growing frustrations towards law enforcement, particularly in Western Europe, increasing the risk of clashes at other protests.
  3. The alleged crackdown on protest movements has intensified anti-police and anti-authority sentiments, as evidenced in France, where protests against the National Assembly’s decision to pass a controversial amendment to France’s global security bill, which intends to make it an offense to show the face or identity of a police officer on duty online, witnessed significant levels of unrest. On November 28, 2020, a protest against the bill in Paris, attended by 46,000 people, resulted in protesters throwing projectiles at police and setting fire to multiple cars. Police responded by firing tear gas at demonstrators.
  4. This trend of heightened unrest reiterates the fact that perceived heavy-handed police enforcement generally results in more unrest, due to heightened feelings of disaffection and, consequently, violent reactions. FORECAST: Given that more protests have witnessed instances of unrest, including vandalism and clashes, countries are liable to deploy more police at future protests, even as restrictions on gatherings are lifted. This, in turn, is likely to increase a sense of uneasiness and tensions among protesters, thereby increasing the potential for unrest due to heightened anti-police sentiments, even at unrelated demonstrations.

COVID-19 anti-lockdown protests served as a platform for different types of protest groups to mix

  1. Considering that anti-lockdown protests across the region were attended by activists from various groups, they have resulted in an unprecedented intertwining of ideologies and consequent breeding ground for extremism. In Germany, protests organized by the far-right Querdenken group were attended by COVID-19 deniers, neo-Nazis, far-right activists, as well as anti-Vaxxers and more moderate groups focused on the economic impact of the restrictions. The increase in anti-government sentiment regionwide has resulted in more moderate individuals who normally would choose not to attend protests, joining demonstrations alongside groups holding extreme or anti-establishment sentiments.
  2. These protests, coupled with the widespread dispersion of misinformation, have allowed more extreme groups to mix with more centrist and mainstream groups, allowing them to gain supporters who otherwise would likely not have been involved. Germany’s federal intelligence agency, the Bundesamt fur Verfassungsschutz (BfV), found that the number of far-right extremists in 2020 was numbered at 33,300, a four percent increase from 2019. This increase has been primarily attributed to anti-lockdown protests, citing that protesters generally did not distance themselves from far-right extremists. As such, the anti-restriction protests have provided an unprecedented recruiting opportunity for protest movements who otherwise would have difficulties projecting their message beyond a niche target audience.
  3. In addition to an increase in extremist activity, the anti-lockdown protests have resulted in activists from more traditional protest backgrounds adopting the tactics of more extreme groups, including throwing projectiles at police, violating bans on protests, protesting without permits, and carrying out acts of vandalism.
  4. FORECAST: In light of this, traditionally mainstream protest groups are liable to continue utilizing more extreme tactics in the near-to-medium-term, as they have become normalized, increasing the likelihood of unrest at protests that would have previously transpired without incident. With that, the risk posed to bystanders in the vicinity of demonstrations is liable to remain heightened in the coming months, even as protest issues begin to diversify again.

Authorities likely to seek further legislation governing protests

  1. The level of unrest witnessed at protests regionwide may push countries to enact legislation restricting protests, citing disruption and risk posed to the general public. This is supported by the UK Parliament’s expected enactment of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which will provide police with more powers regarding protests. The bill follows severe disruptions in London resulting from the Extinction Rebellion protests carried out in 2019, with XR’s two-week-long campaign of civil disobedience in October costing London approximately 21 million GBP in policing and disruptions, on top of 16 million GBP spent on policing the group earlier in 2019. If passed, the legislation is liable to exacerbate anti-government sentiments, as evidenced by large-scale nationwide Kill the Bill protests in recent months.
  2. Given that countries already passed temporary laws restricting protests due to the pandemic, the potential for further restrictive legislation remains. In particular, countries in Central and Eastern Europe where governments are already restricting freedom of expression, notably Hungary and Poland, are more likely to pass stringent laws on protests in the near-to-medium-term, under the premise of avoiding unrest and disruption at protests.
  3. Considering that several NGOs, including Amnesty International, have claimed that governments acted beyond the permissible bounds for limiting rights during health emergencies, with blanket bans resulting in arrests and fines, the enactment of such legislation is liable to result in significant backlash.
  4. FORECAST: Considering that potential legislation is likely to provide police with more powers with regard to demonstrations, police may be more likely to utilize forcible dispersal methods, including tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, and mass arrests. This would not only increase the risk of clashes between protesters and police as well as associated violence at protests but also raise the risk posed to bystanders who are in the vicinity of protest locations, as the abovementioned dispersal methods could inadvertently harm bystanders.

Groups that have been largely dormant during the pandemic will return through 2021

  1. While the start of the pandemic saw controversial protest groups reduce their public activity, including the French Yellow Vest movement, Germany’s Patriotische Europaer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (PEGIDA), Spain’s Catalan independence movement, and Extinction Rebellion (XR), these groups have begun to resurface as restrictions are eased.
  2. Considering that anti-government sentiment has increased regionwide, particularly in France, Germany, and the UK, groups like XR and the Yellow Vest movement are expected to capitalize on this. In France specifically, the Yellow Vest movement is likely to regain traction ahead of the 2022 elections, with future protests liable to witness high levels of unrest, as evidenced by the ten fatalities and thousands of injuries linked to the protests in 2018.
  3. Moreover, as discussed above, groups previously viewed as fringe are entering the mainstream. With groups like Querdenken 711 becoming more visible, the presence of even more extreme groups, such as neo-Nazis, is also growing. That 800 people attended a neo-Nazi protest in Milan, Italy in April 2021 supports this. While previous protests organized by far-right extremists in recent months have focused on the lockdown and pandemic, the protest in Milan was held in commemoration of the death of a member of the fascist Fronte della Gioventu, in 1978. With that, the protest in Milan highlights how far-right movements are now reverting to more traditional issues, rather than focusing on COVID-19. This trend is expected to be echoed by other groups and protest movements from across the political spectrum “returning” to their traditional issues.

Anti-government, environmentalist groups to increasingly shift to smaller-scale, more disruptive tactics

  1. While large-scale protests are likely to renew regionwide, groups are expected to adopt small-scale, more disruptive tactics, particularly if legislation restricting larger protests is adopted.
  2. Such civil disobedience tactics are already at the forefront of groups like XR and Greenpeace’s strategies. While these protests are generally small, they can be extremely disruptive, with activists blocking entrances to major roads and buildings, such as banks, factories, and distribution centers. That XR frequently blocks access to means of public transportation and uses mass arrests as a tactic, with over 1,100 arrests during XR’s action in April 2019, is reflective of the deliberately disruptive nature of the group.
  3. As lockdowns are eased and groups like XR restart activities, the potential for “offshoots” is likely to increase, with new groups adopting similar tactics. This is supported by XR offshoots, such as Animal Rebellion, Money Rebellion, and Ocean Rebellion. Most notably, Money Rebellion carried out disruptive protests in April 2021, outside banks regionwide under the banner ‘Global Money Rebellion Wave,’ resulting in multiple cases of vandalism, particularly in London. In May 2021, 50 protesters belonging to Animal Rebellion blockaded four UK distribution centers of a major fast-food chain, affecting over 1,300 restaurants and 3.5 million customers.  In June 2021, XR staged protests in Cornwall, where the G7 summit was held. Also in June, Animal Rebellion activists held sit-ins at multiple of the chain’s branches. Activists occupied all seats in the restaurants, stopping other patrons from entering due to COVID-19 restrictions. These sit-ins have been organized on a weekly basis and highlight the alternative methods used by such groups to disrupt operations.
  4. That these groups purposely carry out multiple small actions and organize in closed local groups makes it difficult for authorities to monitor. Considering that activists remain highly disruptive despite protesting in small numbers suggests similar actions will continue going forward.
  5. FORECAST: Anti-government and environmental protest groups are expected to carry out further civil disobedience campaigns in the coming months, consisting of numerous smaller-scale protests over extended periods of time. Such campaigns are liable to target businesses viewed as detrimental to the environment and society, including oil corporations and, as witnessed in April 2021, banks and other sectors. With that, these protests will continue to impact the public, in addition to targeted businesses, as widespread disruptions can be expected in major cities. Indeed, XR is planning major protest activities in multiple countries, including Germany and the UK, throughout August 2021.
  6. FORECAST: Given the media attention attained by these types of protests, as well as the abovementioned increased willingness to adopt more extreme protest methods, other groups, and protest movements may attempt to replicate these tactics. Therefore, the potential targets and subsequent disruptions are likely to increase going forward, as these small-scale but high-impact demonstrations become increasingly popular.


  1. Those operating or residing in Europe are advised to maintain vigilance in the vicinity of all large gatherings due to the potential for unrest at protests.
  2. Companies are advised to monitor protest groups related to their sector, as businesses are liable to be targeted through protest actions.
  3. Contact Max Security for coverage of upcoming protests in Europe.