The EU referendum and animal welfare

EU flag ©

The government will hold a Referendum on June 23 on whether the UK wishes to remain part of the European Union.

The RSPCA is neutral and is not campaigning on this issue but we would like to share the facts about animal welfare in the EU for our supporters , so you can make an informed choice.

What EU laws cover

Around 80 percent of UK animal welfare laws originate from the EU with legislation limited to issues affecting the operation of the internal market and the free movement of animals.

So the EU:

  • Sets standards on farm animals such as standards on how animals are slaughtered and transported and on the farming conditions for meat chickens, laying hens and pigs.
  • Agrees consumer information laws such as making method of production labelling compulsory on egg boxes e.g. eggs from hens kept in enriched battery cages, must be labelled ‘Eggs from caged hens’.
  • Has wildlife laws protecting wild birds such as preventing the capture and killing of some species and on the keeping of animals in zoos, EU law requires all zoos to be inspected and licensed.
  • Regulates the use of animals in research with six different laws which includes a ban on the testing, marketing and import of cosmetic products tested on animals.

However the area where the RSPCA does a lot of its work, companion animals, is the least regulated area by the EU. Laws are limited to rules allowing free movement of dogs and cats provided they have been identified and vaccinated, so removing the need for quarantine in the UK and when taking our pets abroad.

How animal welfare laws differ across the UK

Any issues which do not impact on the effective operation of the internal market are devolved to individual Member States.

Pig © Andrew Forsyth/RSPCA Photolibrary

Legislation on animal cruelty is set individually in the four UK countries such as the Animal Welfare Act 2006, in England and Wales which covers the prevention of cruelty and suffering to animals. As legislation on companion animal welfare is mainly devolved, standard setting is decided in the different Parliaments and Assemblies. For instance the use of shock collars is banned in Wales but nowhere else.

The different jurisdictions also set different sentencing thresholds from five years in Northern Ireland compared to six months in England. Other areas where the UK is free to set legislation include the hunting of wild animals by dogs and the welfare of wild animals in travelling circuses.

By remaining in the EU, the UK can:

  • Influence the European Commission and the 27 other EU members to introduce further animal welfare legislation that is currently lacking such as harmonised standards for dairy cows or new rules on duck farming. These would have the potential to improve animal welfare standards across Europe.
  • Influence the European Commission to negotiate and agree Free Trade Agreements (FTA) with other countries which have the potential to improve animal welfare there and reduce the threat of importing products into the UK that are produced to lower welfare standards. This has the potential to minimise the threat from those products undermining our own farming products.
  • Continue to use farm subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy which have the potential to help British farmers improve animal welfare standards.
  • Continue to set our own standards in those areas that are not covered by the EU e.g. hunting with dogs, fur farming.
  • Influence any future standards on animals that the EU is introducing; this will harmonise standards in the 27 other EU countries and have the potential to keep UK farming and industry competitive.

The approach the government will adopt on many of these issues will not be confirmed until a vote to leave the EU has occurred so what follows is necessarily speculation but by leaving the EU, the UK would have the potential to:

  • Adopt its own laws and standards on animal welfare which might be better than the EU standards.
  • Agree and implement a new system of farm subsidies to improve animal welfare which might provide more money than is given now to farmers.
  • Negotiate a new trade agreement with the EU (depending on what model of relationship with the EU the UK has adopted, the UK might be able to ignore future or existing new laws on animal welfare; if the UK decides to adopt the model based on the European Economic Area, this ability will be more restricted.
  • Negotiate new free trade agreements (FTAs) with other countries in the world which might achieve better terms for animal welfare than the present FTAs negotiated by the EU.
  • Prevent imports of certain animals provided that these represent a disease or welfare risk (such as the trade in puppies from the EU) and did not contravene the World Trade Organisation rules.

For more info download and read our full briefing.

We hope this information is helpful in sharing what EU membership means for animal welfare. It is now up to you to decide how you wish to vote in the upcoming referendum.

- David Bowles, Head Public Affairs

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