What would Brexit mean for animals? – Issue 16

What would Brexit mean for animals? Maria Chiorando tackles this political hot potato-from the vegan point of view


On June 23 Britain will go to the ballot box to answer a crucial question: should we remain in the European Union? This complex issue has caused rifts within political parties and sparked furious debate. Current polling suggests public opinion is fairly evenly split in favour of staying or leaving. While the prime minister wants to stay in the EU, a number of high profile Conservative politicians are campaigning to leave. The official line coming from the Labour Party, SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Green Party is they all want to stay.

To oversimplify the matter, those in favour of staying in the EU broadly claim Britain is stronger as part of a bigger bloc, and we cannot hope for EU reform without having a seat at the table and without the power to influence EU decisions. On the other side of the equation, the Brexiteers want to be free of Brussels’ iron fist, decentralising decision making and putting the UK in control of its economic and social affairs.

For vegans there is another key question: When it comes to animal welfare and rights should we vote to stay or leave?
Even this issue is contentious, with a number of organisations offering differing viewpoints. Political advisor and vegan Marisa Heath runs the All–Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare [APGAW]. APGAW is one of the few parliamentary groups based in the House of Commons boasting significant political membership as well as useful membership with outside bodies.  APGAW members all have their own views and Marisa cannot speak on behalf of them but her personal view is: “APGAW members all have their own views and I cannot speak on behalf of them but my personal view is that whilst in principle the EU should be a good thing for animal welfare, in practice it is not owing to the failure of a one size fits all model and a refusal to reform and conform across all member states which is why Brexit may actually raise animal welfare standards in the UK.

“Only last month a group of European ministers called on the European Commission to come up with new rules to improve farm animal welfare standards. The food chain director at the EU Commission’s Food Policy Department, responded by saying that it was unlikely demands would be met and stated ‘…we have to keep in mind, frankly, the lack of support there is in a great many quarters for more legislation in this area. Getting consensus on these issues across members is near impossible as proven time and time again’.”

In other words in theory the EU should make animal welfare standards higher–but the amount of red tape means real change is hard to put in place.

This opinion is not shared by everyone. Green Party member of the European Parliament for the south east Keith Taylor recently claimed the question around animal welfare and the EU referendum is one of the most frequent enquiries he receives.

He told Vegan Life: “The Green Party position is very firmly to remain part of the EU. Within that decision there are lots of different reasons which apply to different interest groups. For people who would like to base a major part of their decision on the treatment of animals, we are saying: ‘If the animals had the vote they would want to stay’.”

The politician credits the EU with designating animals as sentient beings, he says when we look at the United States, for example, farm animals do not have the rights assigned to their European counterparts. “They are treated,” he says, “like a sack of potato–like objects.

“The Lisbon Treaty stipulates that full regard should be paid to animals’ welfare requirements. This means European animal protection laws are frequently stronger than those applied in other parts of the world. In addition, working with other European countries has helped improve conditions for animals in areas where national governments–including our own–have failed.”

A clear example of an area in which campaigners have failed to make progress is live export–when animals are transported to foreign countries by road and sea for slaughter. According to welfare organisation Compassion in World Farming, over three million animals are exported from the EU to non–EU countries every year. Their destinations include Turkey, Russia and the Middle East. Not only are the journeys themselves long and brutal enough to kill a number of animals but when European animals leave the EU, they lose the legal protection they were once afforded. This means they can be subjected to squalid housing, brutal handling, torturous restraint systems, and slow, painful slaughter.

Despite how unpopular the trade is, the UK is bound by EU law to let it continue. To ban live exports would be illegal and would undermine the principle of the free–movement of goods enshrined in the treaty on the functioning of the European Union. According to Marisa Heath: “This continues to be one of the big issues and despite much lobbying, the EU is refusing to reduce the standard journey time or conditions. Horses are also live transported across the EU to abattoirs and for a long time the welfare groups have unsuccessfully been trying to convince the Commission to introduce a maximum journey limit of nine to 12 hours. The free movement has allowed puppies from the most squalid puppy farms in Eastern Europe to be transported into the UK and sold for huge sums to the public here undercutting our efforts to tackle bad breeding and risking disease.”

But would freedom from the EU mean freedom to create higher welfare standards?

Tory MP and farming minister George Eustice certainly thinks so. In a piece backing Brexit he wrote: “If we vote to leave and take control there would be no such thing as EU law. The ECJ would have no jurisdiction in the UK. There would be no more EU auditors telling us what to do. Ministers and their civil servants would be free to start thinking policy ideas through from first principles. We could pilot new ways of doing things and we could actually deliver the change British farming craves.”

He claims this could benefit both farmed and wild animals, saying: “To promote improved wildlife habitats and higher animal welfare standards, we would put in place a scheme similar to the environmental stewardship scheme we have now but we would make it simpler and broaden the remit of schemes to include measures that improve animal welfare.” He believes these changes could not be made under Britain’s current position in the EU–though as ever, not everyone agrees with him.

But claims EU counties including Britain–are forced to uphold lower welfare standards than they would like, simply as part of their membership are false, according to Keith Taylor from the Green Party. He says: “The UK is often able to introduce and enforce welfare standards for animals that are higher than EU minimum requirements. In fact, the UK banned veal crates in 1990. The EU followed suit in 2007. The UK banned animal testing for cosmetics in 1998. Similar, stronger, EU regulations followed in 2009. The UK banned sow stalls in 1999. The EU did the same in 2013. However, this is proof that rather than lowering our standards, Britain has the potential to promote higher welfare standards across the EU.”

Carol McKenna, Compassion in World Farming’s director of campaigns, adds: “As a politically neutral organisation we aren’t able to offer guidance on whether to vote in or out, but we can give insight into what we would expect to happen in the case of Brexit. Some say the UK would be freed from the constraints of EU free trade rules, allowing us to raise our animal welfare standards and protect UK farmers by banning lower welfare imports. However, we would still be governed by World Trade Organization rules. These allow slightly more freedom but would still prevent us from restricting imports that do not meet UK animal welfare standards.”

The answers are complex, and by no means definitive. And farm animals are just one aspect of the welfare equation: another is wildlife. The Wildlife Trust has robustly stated that it is not affiliated with either the stay or leave campaigns, and is not telling people how to vote. The trust has however put together a document considering how the outcome of the referendum may affect nature and decided to make its conclusions publicly available.

The Wildlife Trust claims: “The EU has the single largest body of environmental legislation in the world. The evidence shows that this has had an exceptionally positive impact on our efforts to reduce pollution, influence decisions about built development and safeguard our wildlife in the UK. The EU’s agricultural and fisheries policies have had a more negative impact on wildlife in the past. However, recent reforms have improved them both substantially, and these benefits would be in jeopardy in the event of a Brexit.

“[We] believe that our wildlife and habitats will be better off if they continue to benefit from EU environmental legislation and a cross–Europe framework for nature conservation. We have formed this view because of the positive impact they currently bring to the UK’s wildlife and the uncertainty of the alternatives.

“We also believe that wildlife across Europe benefits from having laws which the UK’s strong nature conservation community has been involved in designing. We know where wildlife stands with the UK as a member of the EU, but there is no certainty about its future under a Brexit.”

But Marisa Heath believes welfare legislation must come from within the UK, saying: “We have seen very little positive action from the EU or funds to enforce existing legislation. In the UK we are about to see the Wildlife Bill make its way through Parliament which seeks to protect and conserve our wildlife. British farmers already aim to meet higher standards but get undercut by cheap imports from the EU.

“Brexit will provide us with ways of supporting our British farmers as the Defra minister George Eustice MP has stated as well as enabling us to lobby our own MPs and Ministers for the legislation required to protect animals rather than a faceless commissioner whom we have no control over and a parliament with 28 competing interests.”

For others it is not a case of in or out: rather that animal welfare standards must be increased whatever the UK’s position regarding Europe.

Carol McKenna, Compassion in World Farming’s director of campaigns, says: “In the past, the UK has often taken a lead on animal welfare within the EU–adopting a total sow stall ban, and prohibiting the use of veal crates before most other member states. In recent years other countries have begun leading the way, proposing EU–wide animal welfare improvements which the UK has refused to sign up to. This is a complex area of discussion and there are further elements which come into play, which we have examined in detail.

“Ultimately, it is clear that both national and international governments urgently need to adopt bold policies to continue raising the base level of animal welfare standards, regardless of the outcome of the referendum in June.”


The lifestyle magazine written by vegans for vegans.