Arsonists attacked Roma settlements on the outskirts of Naples late last month, in a stark reminder of the perils minority groups still face even in European Union countries.

The Italian authorities, unable to contain the violence, resorted to evacuating the camps’ inhabitants, ostensibly for their own safety. Meanwhile, a police crackdown on petty crime led to arrests of nearly 400 Roma, many of whom are likely to be expelled from the country. Italy’s tough, new policy for managing immigration problems makes it a crime to be an illegal immigrant: people found guilty of the offence can be sentenced to four years in jail.

Italy’s new government, under Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister, has declared that the measures are fully compatible with Italy’s inter­national and European obligations. Many commentators, however, have noted with unease that these measures appear to be specifically crafted to strike Italy’s sizeable Roma commun­ity. Italians have come to associate the Roma with a perceived rise in crime and their own sense that the streets of their towns and cities have become less safe.

Is this a problem unique to Italy? We think not. Racist violence is anything but an exclusively Italian phenomenon, and the burnings of Roma settlements could have happened in any European country. So are negative attitudes toward the Roma, who face discrimination, social and economic exclusion and denial of their rights as citizens throughout Europe.

If we do not find the right approach to dealing with the Roma, events similar to the attacks in Italy could become more frequent and spread elsewhere in Europe. It would be bad news for Europe if the approach of the Italian government towards Roma – exclusion and expulsion – were to become the standard. This would place pressure on basic European principles, including the duty of governments to promote equality, provide the necessary legal safeguards, allow for freedom of movement and protect minorities.

Although policies to promote Roma inclusion have been put into place throughout Europe, not least in the framework of the European Union’s enlargement, progress in implementing these policies has generally been dis­appointing. Roma continue to be the single group most discriminated against in Europe. They are deprived of educational and employment opportunities and they suffer poor living conditions and access to healthcare.

Such social exclusion travels. In a sense, Italy is currently only the most visible example of Europe’s failing approach to its Roma. It is imperative that countries now find a common approach, one that respects fundamental freedoms.

Promoting Roma inclusion is a shared responsibility for the EU and its member states. Even though government leaders acknowledged this in December 2007 – after an earlier outbreak of violence against Roma in Italy – it is all too easy to hide behind subsidiarity (the notion of taking decisions at the lowest appropriate level) when it comes to minority issues. Both member states and the European Commission have the tendency to do so.

Countries in the east first recognised that an ambitious joint plan for Roma inclusion was the best way forward. In 2005, eight heads of state from central and south-eastern Europe adopted the Decade of Roma Inclusion, committing their countries to implementing 10-year action plans for opening the doors to Roma in education, employment, health and housing. Spain has joined since. Italy should do so now and so should the other EU member states that have not signed up.

European government leaders will discuss the Roma issue at their summit this month. They should not be satisfied with mere stock-taking of existing instruments drawn up by EU civil servants. It is time to announce a new policy, a long-term European Roma inclusion strategy based on the blueprint of the Decade of Roma Inclusion.

Italy and the other European countries, within the EU and outside it, must find an effective approach to end racist violence against the Roma people once and for all. This must be done now, before there is more violence and before the Roma retreat into a shell.

Emma Bonino is a vice-president of the Italian Senate. Jan Marinus Wiersma is Dutch member of the European parliament. Andre Wilkens is director of the Open Society Institute Brussels