25th Mar 2018

EU agrees breakthrough hate-crime law

After six years of political wrangling, the European Union has agreed to make incitement to racism and xenophobia a crime across the 27-nation bloc, setting a jail sentence of at least one to three years. But the text avoids controversial terms such as the Holocaust and crimes under the Stalin regime.

The deal agreed by justice ministers on Thursday (19 April) "proves that the EU now has moral responsibility and not only on the economy" EU home affairs commissioner Franco Frattini said.

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"There is no safe haven for racist violence, anti-Semitism or people inciting to xenophobic hatred," he added, underlining the text agreed by ministers is "a right balance between fully respecting freedom of speech and punishing any criminal actions, not ideas."

Under the new law, offenders will face up to three years in jail for "public incitement to violence or hatred, directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin."

The same rules will apply to people "publicly condoning, denying, or grossly trivialising crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes," but only those recognised under statutes of the International Criminal Court.

According to German justice minister Brigitte Zypries, speaking on behalf of Berlin's six-month EU presidency, the EU-wide sentencing framework is "an important political signal...especially to the young generation."

However, the wording has been carefully chosen to make it acceptable to the UK, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries, who were particularly worried about the scope of freedom of speech.

Denial of the Holocaust is allowed under British freedom of speech rules, unless it specifically incites racial hatred.

On the other hand, the three Baltic countries and Poland and Slovenia - all carrying the burden of a communist past - gave up their demand that crimes under the Stalin regime in the former Soviet Union also fall under the bill's scope.

In exchange, a declaration saying the EU will organise high profile public debates on totalitarian regimes accompanies the new law. "This is our political response to those concerns," Mr Frattini said.

Divorce law faces Swedish opposition

However, ministers failed to strike a deal on a proposal tabled by Germany to simplify the application of divorce law across the EU.

About 170,000 out of 845,000 divorces annually now involve couples of different nationalities.

According to the draft paper, for example, if a Czech-German couple living in Belgium decide to divorce, spouses would be allowed to choose which law – Czech, German, Belgian - to apply to their case, or would automatically be referred to a court in Belgium, the place of their latest residence.

This option is currently impossible, making divorces a lengthy and unpredictable procedure.

But what appears as a citizen-friendly idea to Germany, Sweden finds in conflict with its national law.

"We will not accept any part of a foreign law that limits the right to divorce, as some countries limit this right for women or for both men and women," Sweden's state secretary Magnus Graner was cited as saying by Swedish media, with Swedish diplomats earlier referring to traditional Islamic law, Sharia, as well as the Maltese legal system which does not permit divorce at all.

In addition, not all member states recognize same-sex marriages or life partnerships, raising questions about how to deal with recognition and enforcement of such specific court-decisions.

But Germany's Brigitte Zypries tried to play down those concerns, saying "the objective is not to harmonize European divorce law - we still let member states decide what marriage and divorce is - but only set common procedure in case of international marriages."

Ministers will return to the thorny issue once again in June.

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