On Thursday 23rd June, registered voters in the UK will be able to vote to decide if we should remain in or leave the European Union.
The debate so far, led by Westminster parties from both the REMAIN and LEAVE campaigns, has often proved confusing at best and manipulative at worst, leaving many voters frustrated and unsure how to vote. Also, those debates have focused almost entirely on the interests of people, while the interests of animals and the environment have received scant attention. In this blogpost, AWP aims to present an angle that has, so far, been given little exposure – what is the best way to vote in the interest of animal welfare – and, when thinking of ‘animal welfare’, should we concern ourselves only with the UK’s animal population, which alone numbers in excess of one billion, or the EU’s animal population which is estimated to number over 20 billion?
REMAIN or LEAVE?
In short, AWP believes that it would be in the best interest of animals for the UK to remain in a much reformed EU rather than for the UK to leave the EU.
Of course, many people feel uncomfortable about the influence of the EU in their country. AWP understands those concerns. At times, the European project can seem almost entirely driven by economic interests – often to the detriment of people, animals and the environment. At present, it would be hard to argue against criticism that Europe is confining animals en masse in super farms, overfishing the seas, disrupting ecosystems worldwide and causing plant and animal extinction. Agriculture and fisheries subsidies have represented the highest costs of the EU for years while serious problems arise for developing countries due to European products being dumped on their markets, all at the expense of the taxpayer. In many respects, EU citizens have been reduced to consumers and taxpayers, and animals and the environment to consumables. But does that make everything that ever came out of Europe bad? Of course not.
What has the EU ever done for animals?
AWP believes collaboration can be very effective. In fact, we’re part of a global movement of political parties for animals founded upon this very principle, including several parties within Europe. We work together when possible, most recently at the 2014 EU Parliament elections when seven of our parties stood together as the EuroAnimal7. It’s also worth noting that, although the UK has a proud history of thought leadership on animal rights and welfare dating back to 1822 when we were the first country in the world to implement laws protecting animals, we may now have been overtaken by the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal and Australia – all of whom have already elected dedicated representatives for animals to their decision-making bodies. Of further note is that both the Netherlands and Germany have elected dedicated representatives for animals to the EU Parliament; Anje Hazekamp of the Netherlands and Stefan Eck of Germany. Both work tirelessly to bring about improvements for animals – not only within the EU but around the world.
Of course, the EU is largely regarded as having established peace in Europe following two world wars, and, over the years, it has taken many steps which have improved the lives of millions of animals within its borders. Such measures include:
- EU wide ban on veal crates (2007)
- Lisbon Treaty (2009) recognising animal sentience
- EU wide ban on battery cages (2012)
- EU wide ban on sow stalls (2013)
- EU-wide sales ban on cosmetics tested on animals (2013) – going on to influence debates in India, who also adopted similar legislation in June 2013
UK politicians and campaigning organisations have played a key role in some of these victories for animals but the fact is that, although long and hard fought for, changes, when they have come have brought about improvements for vast numbers of animals across the continent and not only those in the UK. Of course many social justice victories are about precedent and wins for animals in Europe don’t end there. All improvements in legislation for animals in the EU advance the possibilities for improved animal protection in other countries and, in many ways, the EU is now leading the way in animal welfare legislation and signalling to the rest of the world that things need to change.
We’ve seen some significant developments for animals and the environment within the last year.
In April 2015 Thailand received a “yellow card” from the EU, forcing it to deal with illegal overfishing. Prime Minister, Gen Prayut, talked of how European pressure made regulating the industry a priority for his government.
In October 2015, 438 out of 687 MEPs voted to end EU subsidies for rearing bulls for lethal bullfighting in Spain – currently totalling around €129 million per year. This was, of course, a huge victory for animal welfare and could spell the beginning of the end for this barbaric practice.
Then, in November 2015, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of adopting a resolution that calls on the European Commission to formulate a new Animal Welfare Strategy. The resolution asks for the current EU acquis affecting animal welfare to be updated and consolidated with stronger enforcement, and higher animal welfare standards educating both farming and trade. Sentience within animals was cited as a fundamental principle of the resolution.
In the same month, canned hunting, the practice of hunting wild animals within a confined area from which they cannot escape, began to face significant opposition after Blood Lions, an acclaimed documentary about this practice, was shown in the European parliament. MEPs have since committed to ensuring the film will be viewed by politicians of every EU state.
And let’s not forget the Paris Climate Talks where 196 world leaders and delegates met in Paris as part of the UN Climate Change Conference. The talks ended with what many, including US President Obama called a ground breaking deal. Peta reported good news for animals within the agreement, its text including a clear call for us to eat more sustainably – which could involve a move towards plant-based diets. ‘[S]ustainable lifestyles and sustainable patterns of consumption and production, with developed country Parties taking the lead, play an important role in addressing climate change,’ the final draft read. While this was not an achievement of the EU directly, being part of a European ‘team’ could have helped fast-track such a deal. That’s certainly the opinion of UK Energy Minister Lord Bourne. “Obviously, climate change is an issue that does not stop at national boundaries, so it is very natural that we want to be part of a unit like Europe in terms of climate change negotiations to push the agenda forward,” he told the Environmental Audit Committee recently. “I think that it certainly helped being part of that very strong, united EU team.” It’s an opinion shared by many environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.
Can we trust the UK Government on Animal Welfare?
Of course, an immense amount of work is still needed and, while AWP believes there are still serious concerns about animal welfare within the EU, we don’t feel the UK’s animals would fare better in a post-Brexit UK left to its own devices.The notion that we’re a nation of animal lovers and will somehow automatically do what’s right by them just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny and, under some governments, like the current Conservative government, animal welfare could be at serious risk of worsening rather than improving.
After all, this is the government that has doggedly pursued a policy of culling badgers even when evidence overwhelmingly suggests this has been ineffective in combating Bovine TB and leading scientific experts have long since ceased to support it.
This is a government that, only recently and much to the horror of the animal welfare community, almost succeeded in repealing animal welfare codes within chicken farming and remains committed to repealing the fox hunting ban, despite public opinion being decidedly against such a move and an eminent defeat in the Commons last year.
Perhaps even more worryingly, this is a government that, even when it has decided to take action in improving the lives of animals, has failed against its own objectives – the 2010 ‘commitment’ to reducing the number of animal experiments being a case in point. From 2010 to 2013, the number actually increased and, even when the first ‘drop’ was reported for 2014, many experts urged caution in interpreting the figures after a change in the way figures are collected.
Of course, without binding targets for reduction and proper funding for alternatives, perhaps it was obvious from the outset that such a ‘commitment’ was doomed to fail.
If animal welfare isn’t safe neither is the environment. The most recent budget almost completely ignored climate change. Given free rein, then, outside of the confines of European legislation, just what else would our current administration seek to repeal or side line as they continue to put profit before people, animals and the environment? And could we trust future governments any better?
Of course we must give consideration to the argument that if the UK left the EU we could more easily end the export of live animals from our shores. The argument has often been framed as some sort of unfortunate matter that consecutive governments have wished they could do something about but simply can’t due to the principle of the free movement of ‘goods’ that the EU is founded upon. Some social media campaigns even suggest that live export might end immediately following Brexit. But has the appetite to end live animal export really been seen anywhere in the UK government recently? Might it be more accurate to assume that, even when intentions may be vaguely warm towards such a policy, successive UK governments have actually always prioritised other matters (usually human) over this one. Just because it could, is it really reasonable to assume that a UK government, newly departed from the EU, would actually prioritise this issue over the hundreds of others that would have newly landed at its door? On the other hand, if the UK stays in the EU and at the debating table on this issue, an eventual victory might well pave the way for not only the UK’s animals to be spared the horror of being exported alive but also for millions of other European animals to be spared this too – and after all, the animals we seek to protect from such unnecessary suffering are all the same whether British or not.
A reformed Europe
AWP believes a reformed Europe, one that gives both humans and animals the opportunity to live a good life, is possible. Such a Europe would consist of independent countries democratically tackling cross-border issues together, sharing key values and helping each other adhere to them. In such a cooperation, countries could learn from and support each other to create a better society in harmony with their living environment. The European society that AWP stands for gives priority to sustainability and compassion instead of short-term economic gain. It’s a society that would respect the freedom and privacy of its citizens and give them a greater role in decision-making.
To achieve a better Europe for all, AWP would pursue the following policies:
- Re-directioning EU subsidies (currently averaging 50 billion euros per year) away from livestock and fisheries farming and into plant-based agriculture
- Promoting healthy, plant-based lifestyle initiatives through public health and education campaigns
- Opposing the production and import of genetically manipulated crops anywhere in Europe
- Labelling all products clearly with information which allows consumers to make informed choices in line with their own principles on the environment, health, animal welfare and the social circumstances in which a product is produced
- Phasing out farming practices and systems with poor welfare consequences for animals
- Ending live animal export
- Reducing journey times for animals travelling to slaughter and further ‘fattening’
- Phasing out animal experimentation with binding targets for reduction combined with funding and real support for alternatives
- Ending cultural traditions that involve cruelty to animals, such as bull fighting and foie gras production
- A ban on the production and sale of fur within Europe
- Ensuring proper enforcement of existing animal welfare legislation across all EU member states
AWP believes we are better placed to fight for a better world for people, animals and the environment if the UK remains within the EU.
AWP’s most recent manifesto for the European Parliament elections (2014) can be viewed in full here.