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A puppy is for Remain not just for Christmas
08 Jan, 2018

Overblown claims of higher animal welfare after Brexit

London4Europe Committee member and former senior civil servant Michael Romberg looks at claims by Michael Gove and others that after Brexit the UK will be able to raise animal welfare standards. There is something in the claim, but not much. It relies on the UK public accepting the abolition of the pet passport. It needs better enforcement of rules which could happen if we Remained. More importantly, the UK could do more for animal welfare by arguing for higher standards across the EU. This counter-argument to Brexit is one we need to make across many sectors.

Claim and counter-claim

A BBC reality check of 20 December 2017 has made a useful dissection of Michael Gove’s claims. In summary:

It is false to say that the EU prevents us restricting live animal exports. The EU does prevent us banning them (to member states). The WTO imposes restrictions on what could be done after leaving the EU.

The EU allows countries to impose higher animal welfare standards for production but not to ban the sale of EU products that do not meet them. After Brexit, there would be no EU rule to prevent the prohibition on the import of foie gras, for example; but the WTO might find it unlawful.

The EU pet passport allows easy travel with pets. That has been exploited by criminal gangs. Already member states may impose tougher penalties on offenders than the minimum. Brexit Britain could end the pet passport, but that would also mean UK nationals could not easily take their pets to the EU. Or it could enforce the laws better – but we could do that now, which is what the EU wants member states to do.

The EU’s record on animal welfare

What is striking is how much animal welfare legislation there is from the EU from larger cages for battery chickens to minimum standards for the transport of animals. There is however relatively little on pets.

We do not have a counter-factual for what the UK would have done if we had not been EU members. Would we have gone further, done the same or done less? It is hard to believe that the difference would be great – although if Brexit Britain focuses on deregulation then there would be less animal welfare law.

But it is a mistake to suggest that animal welfare has not been important across the EU.

The Government’s own-goal on “sentience”

The Government left itself open to accusations of not maintaining EU protections after Brexit in its attitude to the “sentience” clause.

EU law regards animals as “sentient” and offers protection on that basis. The EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which turns most EU law into UK law for Brexit Day, did not take that provision over. The Government rejected amendments by the Green MP Caroline Lucas and others to do so.

It is true that existing UK law has a similar protection. But it does not use the exact word and it is not clear that its coverage is identical. Following the amendment debates the Government made a commitment to strengthen the law by introducing the word “sentient” after all. It will go further than existing EU laws by applying to all circumstances.

So while the Government has some justification in claiming to have been misunderstood by those who thought that animals’ sense of pain had no recognition in UK law, their change of heart shows that they accept that Caroline Lucas was right and that EU law offers more protection. So the Government’s original plan was to reduce animal protection.

Better on the inside

As with so many questions there is a trade off. Should we go it alone with higher standards for animals in the UK? Or should we seek to improve EU standards and benefit all the animals in the EU?

In 2016 there were 10m bovine animals in the UK, 89m in the EU28; 5m pigs as against 147m; 24m/ 87m sheep.

As a matter of arithmetic, a small increase in EU welfare standards would bring more benefit to animals than a slightly larger increase in UK standards.

Moreover, the EU is a regulatory magnet, able to impose its standards via free trade agreements and the draw of its large market. Third countries have to follow EU standards for exports. Which means that higher EU standards have effects on animals outside its borders. UK laws would not have that effect.

And could we go it alone? If we wish to have free trade with the EU we will be limited in the barriers we can impose. That could be because of formal legislative issues or because we would not be able to prevent the import of products that did not meet UK production methods.

The prevention of under-cutting of course is one of the core arguments for supra-national legislation in areas like environmental production, state aids – and animal welfare. It is at the heart of the case for pooling sovereignty. If you want better results – you must share control. We need to explain why Leave’s best slogan is so wrong. To put it simply: we have voted leave and are losing control.