A battle that can no longer be avoided

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The report published yesterday by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia is a stark reminder of how backwards much of the continent remains in tackling racism. In Britain, the police have finally begun to keep proper records of racially motivated crimes. Though many incidents slip under the radar, it is now possible to gauge whether racist attacks are going up or down, and which groups are most at risk.

The report published yesterday by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia is a stark reminder of how backwards much of the continent remains in tackling racism. In Britain, the police have finally begun to keep proper records of racially motivated crimes. Though many incidents slip under the radar, it is now possible to gauge whether racist attacks are going up or down, and which groups are most at risk.

But we are a rarity among the 25 nations of the European Union in this respect. Only France and Ireland have comparable systems. Germany records racist crimes only when committed by right-wing extremist groups. Greece, Italy and Portugal have no recording system whatever. And the same is true for the 10 mainly East and Central European nations that joined the EU a year ago.

The consequences are serious. Most member states have no idea of the degree to which their ethnic minorities are being targeted, and it would be laughable to argue that racism is not a major problem. There are around 10 million Roma in Europe who have endured savage persecution for generations. There has been a wave of anti-Semitic attacks in France in the past year. The murder of the film-maker Theo Van Gogh provoked a spate of fire-bombings on mosques in the Netherlands. The disgusting racist chanting that sullied the England football friendly against Spain in Madrid last November caused outrage in this country. But in Spain it was nothing out of the ordinary.

As the European Monitoring Centre points out, European governments cannot tackle racist violence effectively if they do not know the scale of the problem. The police in EU member countries urgently need to change their crime recording methods. Victims must be encouraged to come forward. This is an area where it makes sense for a standardised approach to be adopted across the EU. The agreement of EU governments to promote judicial co-operation to ensure that perpetrators do not take advantage of different standards in individual member states ought to be implemented.

In most countries this will require a revolution in official attitudes towards ethnic minorities. And this will be impossible without the active co-operation of governments. The problem is that there are so now many prominent parties elected on a platform of xenophobia and thinly-veiled racism, from the Danish People's Party to the Northern League in Italy. They would no doubt launch a formidable resistance to these reforms. But that must be faced down. This is a battle that the European Union cannot afford to avoid any longer.

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