On December 10th it was the International Day for Animal Rights and it is a perfect opportunity to confront the biggest challenge facing animal lovers and advocates alike: how to defend animal welfare legislation as Britain prepares to leave the EU.
Our status as a nation of animal lovers has been a proud hallmark of Britain for centuries. Animal welfare is undoubtedly important to a country that is home to 65 million pets and in which supporters of the two biggest animal charities in the country, the RSPCA, and the RSPB, happily donate almost £200m a year.
In fact, one of the most frequent inquiries I have received as a Member of the European Parliament, following the referendum, is how will animals fare when the UK renegotiates its relationship with the EU.
Membership of the European Union has been a key factor in much of the positive action taken on animal welfare in Britain over the last few decades. EU laws are currently protecting millions of British animals and acres of beloved wildlife.
It was the EU that first recognised animals as sentient beings: The Lisbon Treaty stipulates that, as sentient beings, full regard should be paid to animals’ welfare requirements. This recognition ensures that European animal protection laws are frequently stronger than those applied in other parts of the world.
Working together with our neighbours, the EU has improved conditions for animals in areas where national governments, including the UK, have failed to act. Crucially, the influence of these improvements has been felt beyond European borders too.
The EU banned the use of veal crates for calves and narrow sow stalls for pigs that cruelly restrict movement, giving millions of farmed animals a higher quality of life. It also banned the use of barren battery cages for hens, a measure the UK egg industry lobbied to postpone. These measures are now paving the way for the implementation of similar laws across the world.
Furthermore, almost 11,000 square miles of our country’s most precious wildlife sites are recognised, under European Union Birds and Habitats Directives, as special areas of conservation, offering protection for their rare and endangered birds, trees, and bugs.
The future of these protections, however, is shrouded in uncertainty, as the UK prepares to secede from the EU.
Although the government has failed to set out a clear plan for Britain’s future outside the European Union, the moves made so far suggest the UK is heading towards a relationship driven by the xenophobic right’s desire to shut down Freedom of Movement at the expense of the prosperity of the British people. The wider impacts of this move, aside from assuaging those desperate to make migration the scapegoat for Britain’s many social, economic, and environmental justice failings, are little considered.
The UK-EU relationship options available in the above scenario are limited to the ‘Canadian' or ‘Hong Kong' models.
In the ‘Canadian model,’ Britain would seek a free-trade deal with the EU modelled on the hugely controversial CETA deal, which has yet to come into force between Canada and the EU, removing most tariff barriers to trade.
In the ‘Hong Kong model,’ Britain would adopt a unilateral free-trade policy – dropping all tariffs and relying on the World Trade Organisation’s framework. In both of these situations, the impact on animal welfare policies is likely to be negative. The lack of tariffs would be detrimental to the UK’s agricultural sector, as importing food would, likely, be cheaper than producing it in the UK, driving calls for deregulation of animal welfare standards and a race to the bottom for farm animal protection.
Leaving the European Union also puts at risk the body of EU law which accounts for almost 80% of UK wildlife and animal welfare protections. Laws that only exist at EU level, for example, the Lisbon Treaty which recognises animals as sentient beings, will simply cease to apply upon secession. Other UK laws designed to comply with broader European standards and made under the 1972 European Communities Act, such as the Birds and Habitats directives, could be ‘overlooked’ when the act is repealed to allow the UK to leave the EU. The repeal of the European Communities Act, done without great care and consideration for animal welfare, would lead to an unravelling of animal welfare protections.
The closer the relationship the UK maintains with the EU, retaining animal welfare and wildlife protections through single market membership, the better the outcome for British animals. Animal advocates across the UK must apply pressure on Theresa May to ensure the current legal protections, for all species, offered by European Union membership are maintained and strengthened.
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