The April 19 agreement was welcomed by officials as an important step. But some have expressed disappointment that the rules have been watered-down, in an effort to win everyone's agreement.
Germany, because of its history, was one of the countries that had pushed for tough EU-wide rules to ban Holocaust denial and other forms of hate speech. Such rules already exist in Germany and many Central European countries.
Other countries, like Britain and the EU's Scandinavian members, were ready to accept penalties for racially motivated violence -- but not for mere speech. Some countries wanted specific mention of the Holocaust in the new rules. Others, like the Baltic states, wanted Stalin-era crimes to be mentioned.
Compromise Focused On Actions
The compromise that was struck aims to satisfy all sides, as EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini told journalists.
"With this proposal, I think we strike the right balance between fully respecting freedom of expression, on one hand, and punishing any criminal actions -- not ideas," Frattini said.
The rules -- which must now be ratified into law by the individual EU states -- make it a crime to incite hatred or violence against a group or an individual based on color, race, or national or ethnic origin.
They also make it a crime to deny or condone genocide or crimes against humanity with the aim of inciting to violence. The recommended penalties are up to three years in prison.
Specific genocides are not mentioned in the text, which refers to genocides recognized under the statutes of the International Criminal Court. But in practical terms, this means only the Nazi Holocaust and the Rwanda genocide in 1994.
Frattini underscored the symbolic importance of having rules that will apply across the EU.
"It's an important result because [it means there will be] no safe havens in Europe for racist violence, for anti-Semitism, for people concretely inciting to xenophobic hatred," Frattini said.
German neo-Nazis demonstrating in Nuremburg in October 2006 (epa)
But many rights groups point out that the rules may have little practical effect. The European Network Against Racism (ENAR) says it's clear the new regulation will be too weak.
"We are happy that the negotiations have come forward and that it has actually led to a decision," ENAR spokeswoman Georgina Siklossy tells RFE/RL. "But we are very much disappointed that it has been weakened in its scope. So, I would say it's better than nothing, but we're not completely satisfied."
Siklossy says that for instance, provisions for mutual assistance between member states have been removed, depriving them of help in cases where racism is a cross-border phenomenon.
Also, the rules fail to set minimum jail terms for offenses, thereby opening the way for trivial punishments in cases where the charges are not taken seriously enough.
The issue of free speech and hate speech has taken on great significance in Europe recently, especially in the wake of the furor over the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. That row echoed around the Muslim world.
But it's debatable whether such an event would be prevented from recurring by the new rules, since they are meant to cover actions -- not just words -- as Commissioner Frattini made clear.