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European Union nations agreed Thursday on new rules to combat racism and hate crimes across the 27-nation bloc, including setting jail sentences of up to three years against those who deny or trivialize the Holocaust.
After six years of often arduous and tense negotiations, the EU's justice and interior ministers reached a compromise deal that was a dilution of the original 2001 plan.
European officials said, however, that Thursday's deal, which still needs to be vetted by national parliaments, was a big achievement.
"It is going to have implications for member states legislation," said German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries, who chaired the talks. "It is an important political signal for the EU."
EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini said the new rules were aimed at sending a strong message of Europe's commitment to fighting racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, which have been on the rise across Europe in recent years.
With an eye back to Europe's Nazi past, Frattini said the EU had "a moral authority to reaffirm ... values of tolerance, of refusal of any kind of violence."
"There are no safe havens in Europe for racist violence, for anti-Semitism, for people concretely inciting xenophobic hatred," he said.
The text of the agreed-to draft commits EU governments to imposing criminal sanctions against people or groups "publicly inciting to violence or hatred ... directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, color, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin."
It also calls for EU nations to impose up to three-year prison sentences for those convicted of denying genocide such as the mass killing of Jews during World War II and the massacre in Rwanda in the 1990s.
The rules, which will set only minimum standards to fight racism and xenophobia, would only recognize genocides that have officially been recognized under statutes of the International Criminal Court.
Getting a deal has been difficult amid the 27 EU member countries' vastly different legal and cultural traditions in combatting racism, and even on punishing those who deny the Holocaust or other genocides _ laws for which only some member have.
An effort by Baltic nations demanding major Stalinist atrocities should be included in the EU law was rejected, however.
Zypries, whose country holds the EU presidency, said a compromise had been reached on the basis that the EU would organize a public debate on the issue of other massacres or hate crimes, notably those committed during Soviet and Communist times which are not included in the new rules.
In the long effort to get a deal, the original draft has been diluted with numerous opt-outs to get EU governments on side.
Anti-racist groups and other critics have slammed the final draft, saying it would do little to boost existing national anti-racism rules, many of which already go further than the agreed-to EU measures.
They claim vague terms in the proposal and weak jail terms will do little to take a firm stand against anti-Semitism and other racist incitement.
Several countries, including Britain, Italy and Denmark, were reluctant to sign up to the measures because they feared EU-wide laws could overstep the right to expression protected under their countries' laws.
More contentious aspects of the draft rules require member states to criminalize those "publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivializing ... crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes," as defined under international law.
But EU nations "may choose" to opt out of such punishment if such rules do not exist under their national laws.
Opt-outs also are foreseen for racist remarks based on religious grounds and on Nazi symbols, such as the swastika.
Many EU nations already ban denials of the Holocaust, including Germany, France, Spain, Austria and Belgium, however others like Denmark allow the publishing of hate literature under their freedom of expression legislation.