One unintended consequence of Michael Howard’s decision to follow the lead of the right-wing tabloids and make gypsy campsites a central part of the Conservative Party’s early electoral campaign will have been to give a boost to anti-gypsy racists across Europe.

Since the collapse of the communist regimes in 1989, the Romani minority in Central and Eastern Europe, (the majority of which is not nomadic) has faced a resurgence of racism while at the same time it has sought to establish rights and protections in the new democracies.

It has been a hard struggle for Roma rights groups – they face the open hostility of nationalists and right-wingers but they have found it hard to win allies on the liberal left, where there is less hostility but widespread indifference to their situation.

Indeed when I first visited Hungary I was shocked by how even generally tolerant, liberal and open-minded people would make dismissive comments about the ciganyok and were sceptical of there being any prospect of improving their generally miserable conditions of living.

The European Union deserves credit for making legal rights for Romani a part of the accession process. The EU was never shy about criticising the human rights record of countries such as Slovakia and demanding improvements. In words and in some cases actions, the governments of that region have taken steps to deal with the issues raised.

The reaction to this was however that Romani who campaigned for their rights were seen by some as tarnashing their country’s image. When foreign newspapers or television stations looked at the plight of the Roma the response was rarely one of shame or determination to put the situation right but rather to see the criticisms as ‘anti-Hungarian’ or ‘anti-Slovak’.

One of the frequent defensive reactions I heard in Hungary was that “well, don’t tell me there isn’t racism in Britain or the US” – as if this excused their own discrimination. It is in such a context that Howard’s campaign will be viewed. Unintentionally I am sure, the Tory leader will have put a grin on the face of racists from Bucharest to Warsaw.

I specifically recall the reaction of some Hungarians to the hysterical campaign in the British tabloids to the issue of EU enlargment. The claims of ‘fears’ of thousands of Slovak ‘gypsies’ turning up at Dover and demanding NHS treatment were certainly noted in the region with no shortage of amusement at the fact that a country that had been ‘lecturing’ them about human rights for Romani was in such a panic about the prospect of having to behave with decency themselves.

What will such people make of Michael Howard using the issue of gypsy travellers to ridicule the very weapon that has been used against them, what the Tory leader refers to as “so-called human rights”?

The issue of providing decent living space for the UK’s travelling community, which includes Romani, requires common sense and tolerance, two items that are rarely in much abundance during election campaigns – precisely why Howard’s campaign should be condemned.

It has been suggested by others that anti-Roma prejudice remains one of the few acceptable forms of racism. The history of the stateless Romani people, who are no tiny minority (the European population is estimated at seven to nine million) is one of long standing persecution, including the barely acknowledged Nazi atrocities committed against them.

This persecution, fed by ancient myths that linger, the discrimination against them by police and employers and the widespread ignorance of their culture, have been a stain on Europe’s claim to be a continent of tolerant democratic societies.

It is not only in Central and Eastern Europe where Romani have faced oppression and discrimination. Claude Cahn, of the European Roma Rights Center, has noted, after a decade of pressurising ‘New Europe’ to respect the human rights of Romani, ‘Old Europe’ has been less forthcoming when it comes to Roma on their own territory.

Belgium has been found in violation of the European Convention of Human Rights for collectively expelling a group of Slovak Roma, while Italy was forced to settle out of court for collectively expelling Roma to Bosnia.

The United Kingdom has publicly undertaken largescale expulsions explicitly targeting Roma such as a Home Office operation, codenamed Operation Elgar, under which the deportation of 48 failed Roma asylum seekers from the Czech Republic was filmed by television crews.

All this at a time when those criticised governments from Central and Eastern Europe have come together in a campaign to make the next ten years The Decade of Roma Inclusion.

I am sure Howard’s cynical campaign is aimed at winning votes through fear not at undermining such efforts in Bulgaria and Serbia, after all the approach of western European governments appears to be to urge improvements for Romani in the Eastern part of the continent so as to help keep them out of our half – a strategy I am sure Howard would sign up to.

But by choosing to try and make an anti-gypsy campaign an election issue Howard not only risks stirring up fear and hatred of Romani in the UK but gives yet another excuse for the opponents of Roma rights across Europe.

Adds: For those interested in a brief history of the Romani this Economist article from six years ago is a good place to start.

See also The European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest.