On 23 June, British citizens – including myself – will be asked to vote to decide whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union or leave it (the latter is commonly referred to as “Brexit”).
So far, the debate on the referendum has mostly been centred on what the financial consequences of a possible Brexit could be, for the nation in general and especially for individual families.
The idea of the UK leaving the EU is worrying most world leaders, mainstream security experts, business leaders, and the main national and international financial institutions (IMF, Bank of England, etc.). They agree that leaving the EU would seriously harm the country’s economy and stability, and this would have serious effects on other countries around the world too.
The Brexit camp has found fans in Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, and is regularly dismissing claims that leaving the EU would harm the UK, arguing that their critics “have been wrong before, and are wrong now”. Nevertheless, when asked on TV if she could cite any reputable independent study that shows that the UK would be better off if we left Europe, or that it would at least maintain the same level as today, Kate Hoey MP (Leave campaign) said, “Well, I can’t actually produce a study that says that”.
That might be enough for many people to decide to vote to remain in the EU, but alongside the financial debate, the ethical one should occupy a more prominent space. Friends of the Earth have put their weight behind the Remain campaign, and have decided to explain through a series of meetings around the country why the EU has had very positive effects for the environment in the UK, and why leaving would have very negative consequences. Conservative, Labour and Green MPs and experts in environmental issues are giving presentations at these meetings, claiming that being part of the European Union has given us cleaner beaches and drinking water, less air pollution, safer products and protected wildlife.
Animals were briefly mentioned at the Friends of the Earth campaign launch in London, but how should British people who care about the welfare of animals vote on 23 June?
The answer to this question should be based both on the present situation, which arises from the impact of EU legislation on the UK, and on what could happen if the Leave campaign were to succeed.
It is important to start by reminding ourselves that in any piece of EU legislation, the main decision-makers are the European Parliament, elected by all EU citizens every 5 years, and the EU Council of Ministers, formed of the relevant ministers of all 28 Member States. The EU Commission is made up of the ‘ministries’ in charge of specific aspects of EU legislation and policies, led by Commissioners who are appointed by the governments of Member States, one per State, for a total of 28. They are in charge of drafting proposals that will then be amended and voted on by Council and Parliament, and of monitoring the implementation of EU law.
In other words, any decisions taken at the EU level are directly influenced by the way we vote in European and national elections.
The first piece of EU (at the time EEC) legislation on animal welfare came in 1974, only a few months after Great Britain had joined: this was the Directive on stunning of animals before slaughter, which established the important obligation to stun animals destined for food production before slaughter, in order to spare them avoidable suffering. Exceptions were set for ritual slaughter. This Directive was successively modified and expanded (the present Regulation dates back to 2009), maintaining the same principles, but also allowing Member States to set stricter rules, which would apply to all their slaughterhouses. Denmark decided to ban exceptions for ritual slaughter in 2014. In the UK this could be done either as an EU member or outside it, but so far calls to extend the obligation to stun animals before slaughter have been rejected by the British government .
Even if the UK left the EU, stunning would be likely to remain mandatory in the UK, both because of consumer pressure and because Britain would still have to comply with EU rules in order to export to the Continent. In fact, one of the great achievements of EU legislation on stunning and slaughter, made possible by the fact that the EU is one of the largest markets in the world, is that imports from third countries are subject to compliance with the EU animal welfare rules: “The health certificate accompanying meat imported from third countries shall be supplemented by an attestation certifying that requirements at least equivalent to those laid down in [EC Regulation 1099/2009] have been met.” This has positively affected the way animals live and die in countries that export meat to the EU, to the point that most South American slaughterhouses now comply with EU standards.
This has never been requested by other countries, nor would it be easy for single countries to resist pressure from exporting countries around the world. Trade tariffs are negotiated bilaterally, and clearly the EU is in a privileged position that cannot be matched by any of its individual members in isolation.
The outcomes of leaving the EU with regard to stunning before slaughter would be:
- The need to rewrite national legislation, which might then fall below present EU standards (it might be higher too, potentially, but if there was the political will for this, it would probably have been done already);
- The possible flood of meat – especially in ready meals and food preparations – coming from slaughterhouses with lower standards on stunning and slaughter. This is against EU law, but is likely to happen if Britain acted as a sole player in international markets;
- In summary, if Britain left the EU, billions of animals could be subject to more suffering at the time of slaughter.
Moving on to animal products, conventional battery cages for the production of eggs have been banned in the UK thanks to the 1999 EU Directive, and since 2004, EU legislation has required that all eggs and egg packets indicate which system (free-range, barn, cage) was used to produce them. Specific legislation is in place for organic products, which establish that EU organic eggs are always free-range.
As in the case of slaughter, EU Member States are allowed to go further, and the most evident option is to ban all cages – both conventional and enriched – for egg production in the whole country. In some EU countries, no eggs are produced by hens kept in cages, but this is not the case in the UK. Outside the EU, Switzerland has banned all cages since 2001 – the first country in the world to do so – and such a complete ban has always been available to EU countries. Indeed, it appears that no battery cages will be in use in Austria by 2020. By contrast, some countries bordering the EU, such as Ukraine, are actually expanding their production in conventional cages in order to sell cheap eggs to EU retailers and food producers, because imports are not forbidden.
The outcomes of leaving the EU in relation to egg production would be:
- The need to rewrite national legislation, which could be lower than the present EU standards (or, less probably, higher);
- Britain could see market opportunities in lowering standards, thus reducing production costs. This could happen by increasing the stocking densities in which hens are kept, removing the mandatory labelling of eggs according to the farming system, and even by making the use of conventional battery cages legal again. This is against EU law, but possible if Britain had to rewrite its laws as an independent country. Many consumers would refuse to buy eggs from caged hens, and many private standards adopted by retailers would support the market in higher-welfare eggs, but unfortunately a huge market for battery eggs still exists, especially for food preparations, for which no labelling obligation exists;
- In summary, if Britain left the EU, millions more hens every year could end up in battery cages.
On live animal transport, pig farming and other farming activities, many demonstrations have taken place in Britain over the decades, and the country did quite well when it adopted a ban on sow stalls even before the EU Directive was adopted. Nevertheless, we still export live animals to third countries, and our actions to improve the welfare of farm animals are lagging behind those of other EU countries. Although the EU Regulation on live animal transport is still largely insufficient, since 2014 some Member States (Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands) have been asking for tighter rules and a maximum journey length of 8 hours, from departure to destination.
The same countries have been leading actions in the EU Council of Ministers for the phasing-out of non-therapeutic mutilations in farming activities such as beak-trimming in chickens, and tail-docking and castration in pigs. They also asked to consider establishing specific EU legislation for the protection of farm animals such as turkeys, rabbits, broiler breeders and pullets, and for companion animals (especially dogs and cats). None of these animals are protected by specific EU legislation yet.
Britain has not joined those countries in calling for higher standards for farm animals, and if the UK leaves the EU, even the protection granted under existing EU law would be re-discussed in order to define new national legislation.
Nevertheless, at least on live animal transport the UK would still be bound to follow EU standards in its trade with EU countries, because of an important ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union in 2015.
The outcomes of leaving the EU in relation to live animal transport, pig farming and other farming activities would be:
- The loss of the existing animal welfare measures enshrined in EU legislation, which set limits below which no Member State can go (the UK government approved these with the other EU countries, but it would not be obliged to reflect them in new national legislation).
- The immediate loss of the ban on the import of hormone-treated beef, which has cost the EU 20 years of trade disputes with the USA and Canada to defend.
- No duty of compliance with the EU bans on seal products, which the EU defended against a Canadian trade challenge.
- No duty of compliance with the EU ban on dog and cat fur (although this would be more likely to be included in national legislation, compared with provisions related to other animals).
- The need to rewrite national legislation, which could be lower than present EU standards (or, less probably, higher). In fact, if leaving the EU triggers an economic crisis, and an obvious increase in export tariffs, Britain could see market opportunities in lowering its standards and thus reducing production costs.
In terms of the promotion of animal welfare through international Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), the 2003 FTA with Chile was the first ever to refer to cooperation on animal welfare. This opened the doors to the organisation of many events, conferences, seminars and training activities in most Latin American countries, with financial support from the EU. This prepared the ground – among other things – for the introduction in the legislation on slaughter of the requirement for importers of meat to the EU to comply with its rules on animal welfare, in particular on stunning before slaughter. Exceptions remain for ritual slaughter, but Member States can decide to ban any slaughter without stunning.
The content of new agreements like TTIP can undermine progress achieved over decades, but it is up to the Members of the European Parliament we elected in 2014, to the ministers of the governments we elected at the national level (EU Council of Ministers), and to the EU Commission (Ministers of the EU – each government designates one), to avoid such a risk.
The outcomes of leaving the EU in relation to promoting animal welfare through FTAs would be:
- The weakened position of the UK as a single country in negotiating with countries and groups of countries around the world. TTIP-like threats would be more likely to have to be accepted, and national animal welfare legislation and standards would be negatively affected.
- The inclusion of references to animal welfare in the FTAs, which often even the EU struggles to see accepted by partner countries, would be even less likely to be included – or followed by concrete action – if the UK negotiated independently. This would not have a big impact internally, but opportunities would be lost to see animal welfare improved in other countries with lower standards.
The list could go on, but I hope that these few examples are sufficient to show why it was important to write this article. In short, a vote against the EU is a vote against animal welfare too.
Over the last 30 years, the EU has been one of the greatest producers of legislation and measures in favour of animal welfare in the world, despite the occasional problems with proper enforcement and the often long transition periods.
Tens of millions of animals in the UK have benefited from the EU’s push towards improved animal welfare, and through the EU’s investments worldwide – sometimes supported by Free Trade Agreements – countless animals across all continents have been helped too.
If you are a British citizen, and if you want to help animals in the UK, in the EU and worldwide, please vote for the UK to remain part of the EU on 23 June.
Then, from the day after the referendum, let’s put pressure on our government so that it decides to better represent the views of its citizens who demand higher animal welfare, by taking a more prominent role in promoting animal welfare at the national level and within the European Union.
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