What does Brexit mean for the future of animal protection?

April 12, 2017

Most UK animal welfare legislation is based on EU rules formulated with UK involvement, so Brexit has the potential to affect animal protection levels in the UK (and across the remainder of the EU). Before the EU referendum, the CASJ explained that the impact of Brexit will depend on the UK government’s appetite for listening to the public and valuing animal protection versus promoting profit-maximisation, international trade and deregulation.

So now, in the immediate aftermath of the vote, what do the prospects for animal protection look like?

First of all, the Vote Leave campaign didn’t respond to our query regarding their animal protection intentions. This doesn’t inspire confidence, though we should point out that the official Remain campaign didn’t bother to reply either. In fact, this lack of interest from both designated campaigns is another revealing clue to the broad disregard for animal protection across the British political establishment.

It’s actually hard to make very confident predictions because of the Brexit camp’s lack of clarity over the UK’s future status. But, as this blog by environmental experts indicates, there seems to be two broad options for the UK government if it does actually go through with Brexit:

  • The ‘Norwegian’ Option: It reaches an agreement with the EU to stay in the single market as a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), similar to Iceland or Norway. In this scenario, the UK would still be subject to most EU laws affecting animal welfare. But we would have much less influence over the content of those laws. Overall, and other things being equal, this scenario would probably not make a huge difference to the evolution of animal welfare standards compared with staying in the EU.
  • The ‘Free Trade’ Option: It has a looser future relationship with the EU outside the EEA. We may end up being more open to imports of animal products from countries with very low welfare standards such as China and the USA (through TTIP, for example), making it a challenge to maintain our current standards, which are poor in the first place.

So how will the UK government balance animal welfare and business interests in the future? The big picture does not give grounds for much optimism. Regardless of which party has been in power, the British state has a long tradition of strongly backing profiteering over compassion. More animals have suffered more intensely in factory farms and research labs as successive governments have implemented EU laws as feebly as possible. Behind closed doors, industry and civil servants have worked together to weaken animal welfare protection, and elected politicians of all stripes have lacked the backbone to stand up to them. With the leading Brexit advocates calling for even more deregulation, power may shift further against animal protection.

On the other hand, a more positive indication was given by Agriculture Minister George Eustice in an article in The Times before the vote. He argued that by leaving the EU, the UK Government could replace existing EU grants to farmers (known as the Common Agricultural Policy – CAP) with new subsidies for higher welfare systems in British farming and so stop them being undercut by foreign farms operating to weaker standards.

For example, Mr Eustice claimed that pig farmers would be in a position to receive new grants to support the extra cost of raising their animals in better conditions that mean they don’t have to have their tails docked to prevent stress-related tail-biting. As a result, the products from those animals could be sold cheaply enough to compete with pork etc. raised in more intensive systems, thereby making higher welfare standards in the UK economically viable.

Some commentators have also suggested that EU rules prevent the UK from banning the live export of farm animals or the importation of some products that are no longer produced in the UK for ethical animal welfare reasons, such as fur. But the RSPCA has argued that if/when the UK leaves the EU it would still be a challenge to ban live exports and fur products because of the need to:

  • adhere to EU rules to be able to carry trading with the EU
  • and/or adhere to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules

Once again, whether the UK government takes any opportunities to increase animal welfare will depend on its commitment to the cause relative to its preference for economic growth. Sadly, the UK government has recently opposed proposals from Germany, Netherlands and Denmark to tighten EU rules on live export for the sake of animal welfare. In many respects, the UK has been a drag on improving animal welfare across the EU, rather than the other way around.

So unless there is a fairly radical change of approach from the UK government, the omens are not good.

This is why our pioneering proposal for a new Government Animal Protection Commission is, if anything, more urgent than ever. That’s because this would entrench animal protection in our system of government for the first time, giving animals more of a level-playing field in the battle against the state’s deep obsession with money and profit above everything else.