BERLIN, Germany — When the Croatian soccer player Josip Simunic celebrated his team's victory over Iceland last month with a nationalist slogan from the country's World War II pro-Nazi puppet regime, thousands of fans roared in approval.
It sent a deafening wake-up call directly to the European Commission’s headquarters in Brussels.
When the European Union expanded to include former Soviet bloc countries in Central Europe a decade ago, one of the motives was to speed the march of free Europe's ideas on citizens' fundamental rights into formerly repressive states once trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
Veronika Szente Goldston, of Human Rights Watch, says the accession process was the “single most important engine for change in those countries” at the time.
But a gathering storm of racial discrimination and ethnic nationalism suggests it may be failing.
The European Commission’s Vice President Viviane Reding admitted as much last year. Speaking at a conference on human rights, she said the EU was “very strict” when it came to criteria for joining the union.
“But once this member state has joined the European Union, we appear not to have any instrument to see whether the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary still command respect.”
Experts say that one reason is that the European Commission can’t be seen as a separate entity from the member states, meaning violators must effectively monitor and punish themselves.
As a result, the EU’s infringement proceedings — through which the commission can take member states to the European Court for violations — haven’t been implemented as often or as effectively as they could have been.
Article 7 of the EU’s recent Lisbon treaty enables the commission to enact sanctions against members or revoke their voting rights for serious human rights violations. But the rule’s widespread interpretation as a “nuclear” option of last resort has robbed the commission of one of its only enforcement tools.
“It’s never been used and it most likely never will be used because it’s formulated in such a way that the bar is set so high,” Goldston says. “Everyone’s shying away from it because they feel it’s too much. But there really isn't anything else.”
It's not just soccer hooligans causing headaches in Brussels.
Less than three months after joining the EU in July, Croatia faced the threat of sanctions — empty, it turned out — for refusing to change extradition laws that protected alleged war criminals who committed atrocities during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Serbia alleges that anti-Serb incidents are on the increase in Croatia following a ban on Serbian-language signs in the border town of Vukovar in November.
Croatia also banned gay marriages after a controversial referendum revealed that the public was keen on only the narrowest definition of the EU's “right to marry and found a family.”
Last year, Hungary repeatedly clashed with the EU over new laws that threatened the country’s judicial independence and freedom of religion in a battle many expect will resurface.
And new member states across Central Europe continue to draw fire for segregation and violent attacks against Roma. Amnesty International reported more than 120 beatings, shootings and stabbings over the past four years in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, where the authorities in one town built a wall to separate the Roma community in August.
Across the EU, social polarization, extremist rhetoric and ethnic tensions have increased both within and between member states, according to Blanca Tapia, spokeswoman for the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA).
“Hate crime is a daily reality in the European Union,” Tapia said in an email. “No states are perfect.”
Rights watchdogs also warn that despite the headlines, rising extremism and discrimination and violence against minority groups can’t be ascribed only to new member states in Central Europe.
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The focus of attention on their performance has obscured shortcomings in the EU's internal monitoring system and the cultural biases of its older, western members.
In 2010, France forcibly evicted more than 1,000 Roma immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria and demolished more than 100 of their camps, drawing the European Commission’s ire for violating EU laws allowing freedom of movement throughout member states.
Greece, Italy and other older members have also drawn criticism for violations as the euro crisis has deepened resentment against immigrants and refugees from war-torn states in Africa and the Middle East.
“The EU seems to take human rights seriously only when it comes to candidate countries,” Goldston says. “I see it less as an issue about new member states than something that brings hypocrisy to light.”