The European Union Thursday agreed on new rules to criminalize racism and xenophobia in the bloc, but said that the long-debated measures were mainly of symbolic nature.
The new rules are only of a symbolic nature
"Racism and xenophobia can only be combatted effectively inside society," German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries told reporters after a meeting with her counterparts in Luxembourg.
"Criminal measures can only be supplementary, they can never be sufficient in combatting racism and xenophobia in itself," said Zypries whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency.
Zypries said that the agreed piece of EU legislation, which is not legally binding for the bloc's members, was an "important political signal" for the 27-nation union.
Under the new rules, EU countries would set jail terms of at least one to three years for "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."
No minimum fines
However, the legislation does not set any minimum fines.
The agreement doesn't specify what constitutes incitement to violence
It also leaves up to national courts to define what exactly constitutes incitement to violence or hatred.
There will also be no Europe-wide ban on the use of Nazi symbols.
Frattini said that the new rules would fully respect the freedom of expression.
"We are punishing concrete action, not any ideas, we are punishing incitement to hatred in a concrete way or encouraging other people to take concrete (xenophobic) action," Frattini said.
He said that the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, would try to raise awareness for the Stalinist atrocities by organizing public debates "on the horrible crimes of the last century, ... Nazi crimes, Stalinist crimes."
However, the events still needed parliamentary approval in seven EU countries.
The EU's anti-racism rules -- debated since 2001 -- seemed at risk after Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia had demanded making illegal the condoning, denial or trivialization of crimes against humanity committed under the Soviet regime led by Joseph Stalin.
Other EU states were opposed to the Baltic demands, arguing that they did not legally recognize crimes committed under the Stalinist regime or define major Stalin atrocities as genocide.
Zypries said the EU did not intend to decide on history but wanted to create public awareness for crimes against humanity.
The Baltic states wanted Stalin's crimes to be put on a par with Hitler's
Germany views a common EU law on combating racism and xenophobia as a moral obligation.
The new rules which would also make denying the Holocaust -- the mass killing of Jews by Nazis and Nazi supporters -- a crime in the EU if the statement incites to violence or hatred, do not cover denying the massacre of Armenians in World War I.
Turkey denies that the killing of up to one million Armenians constituted genocide, putting their deaths down to ethnic strife, disease and famine, and has prosecuted historians and journalists for calling it genocide.
Watchdogs criticize rules as weak
Under the rules, the denial of crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes will be punishable in the EU if these crimes have been defined by international courts and if the statement incites to hatred or violence.
Laws against denying the Holocaust already exist in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Spain.
European racism watchdogs have said that the agreed text is "weak," adding that EU efforts were "without any substantial intent to provide strengthened protections for those who experience racist crime and violence in Europe."