MEPs tend to get more enquiries about animal welfare than any other issue, with thousands of people writing to me on this issue since I arrived in the European Parliament. Yet up to now this issue has been largely absent from the Brexit discussions. However that changed last week when Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Brexit negotiator, suggested that British pets would lose their right to visit Europe without being quarantined after Brexit.
Meanwhile in Westminster, MPs rejected an amendment put forward by the Green Party to put part of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty into UK law as part of the EU withdrawal bill. This led to newspaper headlines claiming that MPs had voted that animals cannot feel pain or were not sentient beings. This however was completely untrue. Animals are already recognised as sentient beings in the 2006 Animal Welfare Act, so repeating the claim in the EU withdrawal bill served no practical purpose. It is also worth pointing out that despite animals being recognised as sentient beings in the EU Lisbon Treaty, this hasn’t stopped the EU continuing to allow and financially support bullfighting, foie gras production and rabbit farming within the EU.
So what’s the reality? How will Brexit affect animal welfare in the UK & the EU?
Pet movement, contrary to what Michel Barnier suggests, is unlikely to be affected. It is currently regulated by the EU’s pet passport scheme that allows pet owners to travel across the EU with their pets. This is an EU scheme however it does recognise non-EU countries in an annex if their animal welfare and registration systems are up to EU standards, thereby allowing pets to travel in and out of Europe from these countries as well. The annex currently includes Russia, Japan and the UAE. It is therefore extremely unlikely that the EU would not include the UK in the annex, when countries with much poorer animal welfare standards are included.
So pets should, even without an exit deal, be able to continue to travel to Europe. However the pet passport scheme has had one very bad side effect. Thousands of puppies are currently brought into the UK from Eastern Europe in order to be sold, often online, in the UK. These are commercial animals yet falsely use pet passports issued by countries in Eastern Europe to get into the UK. Many are troubled or haven’t actually had the much-needed vaccinations. As a result, many die prematurely once they have been sold to unsuspecting families. More details on this scandal can be found here: https://www.danieldaltonmep.co.uk/news/dalton-secures-puppy-importation-review
To date the UK has found it difficult to do anything to change the situation because of the pet passport scheme. When the UK has left the EU, although the pet passport scheme will still operate, the UK will be able to bring in additional controls to try to address this problem, for example by raising the age at which puppies can come into the UK to six months, which should be a significant aid in stemming the flow of unhealthy animals coming into the country.
In fact, contrary to the perception given by some in recent days, the UK is generally far ahead of the EU in both animal welfare legislation and, crucially, enforcement. For example, the UK banned sow stalls many years before the EU did, and was instrumental in ensuring the EU did actually outlaw them. The UK has been the main driver behind rural development schemes in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which divert money from direct payments to schemes which benefit the environment and animal welfare, often against the wishes of many other EU countries. Enforcement of animal welfare rules is also much stronger in the UK than in many other countries. The hard reality is that it is possible for animals to be kept in considerable cruelty without breaking a single EU law, so the EU is no benchmark for animal welfare and certainly not for the UK.
So, animal welfare standards in the UK are not threatened by Brexit, far from it, and this can and should be used as an opportunity to further strengthen animal welfare in the UK. The UK has often been the standard bearer for animal welfare issues and whether ending export refunds for live animal transport or banning sow stalls and battery cages, the UK drove animal welfare policy for decades. The concern for animal welfare post-Brexit should not be in the UK, which will continue to be a global leader in animal welfare, but in the rest of the EU, which will lose one of the chief proponents of improving animal welfare conditions.