In view of our charity status, we have remained neutral on the issue of the UK leaving or remaining a member of the European Union (EU).
We have been watching developments carefully since the Referendum to head off new threats and seize new opportunities for animal welfare.
The big question many of you are now asking is, what will Brexit mean for farm animal welfare? Will it improve welfare standards or lower them?
The honest answer is it’s difficult to know.
Will Brexit mean an end to live exports?
An exit from the EU is no guarantee of a UK ban on major areas of welfare concern such as so-called ‘enriched’ battery cages for hens or live animal exports.
In recent times, the UK government has shown little appetite for improving farm animal welfare.
However, the key question now is how might an exit from the EU change things?
Trade and animal welfare
One of the big influences on a government’s attitude toward issues like animal welfare is the trading environment.
Although Brexit will mean that EU rules no longer apply, the UK’s new trading relationships will affect the degree to which the UK will feel it is willing to enact welfare improvements unilaterally.
The EU will remain a key trading market for the UK, but what rules will be put in place to regulate it?
In terms of what a new trading relationship might look like, there are a number of options.
A trade agreement between the UK and the EU as a whole could be one option. This may well prevent the UK from restricting imports produced to lower welfare standards. A long-standing justification for governments to procrastinate on ending cruel practices is fear that domestic farming might be undermined by cheap imports produced to lower standards.
Another option could be a European Economic Area (EEA) style agreement in a similar vein to Norway. This too is a free movement arrangement for goods and services and is unlikely to allow the UK to restrict lower welfare imports.
A series of bi-lateral agreements with former EU partners could also be considered. The scope for improving farm animal welfare here would depend on how much priority the UK gave to welfare in its negotiations, for example, by insisting on agreements that might allow the UK to restrict lower welfare imports.
If none of the above agreements are reached the UK’s trade relationships would be governed by the rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). These are not as tough as EU free trade rules but they do represent a significant obstacle to restricting cheap imports produced to lower welfare standards.
These developments could result in the UK government being reluctant to introduce welfare improvements for fear of cheaper imports undermining the nation’s farming industry.
A big question mark therefore remains over whether new trading relationships will actually benefit animals by making the UK government more open to improving animal welfare.
What happens to existing law?
The other big question is what will happen to the UK’s existing law?
Most UK law on farm animal welfare is based on EU law. The UK will have to decide which of these provisions to retain. Farming bodies will probably press for some to be diluted. We will oppose such moves. We will also oppose attempts to replace legislation with industry codes of practice, something we see as akin to letting the fox guard the hen house.
We will certainly continue to press for proper enforcement of existing bans, like that on the routine cutting of pigs’ tails, something which remains poorly enforced in both Britain and across the European continent.
The EU’s controversial farm subsidy system, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), will no longer apply in Britain post Brexit. It will be up to the UK to provide subsidies for farmers. We will press for subsidies to be primarily used for public goods i.e. for elements such as animal welfare and environmental protection which cannot, or can only partially, be provided by the market.
Defra’s Plan for the future of food and farming
Defra intended to publish its 25 year plan on the future of food and farming in March, but then postponed it until after the Referendum. This focuses primarily on productivity, competitiveness and agri-tech. It largely ignores welfare, the environment and public health. In our view, the current plan would lead to further industrialisation of farming and more factory farming in Britain.
Whatever now happens in the changing political landscape of Britain and Europe, Compassion will continue to provide the strongest voice for better farm animal welfare.
Your support will be needed now more than ever.
Thank you so much for being there.