European animal rights activists recently went public with videos of the appalling conditions facing livestock being exported from the EU, from broken bones and horns, to brutal heat and excruciatingly long journeys in confined spaces.
A call for the ban on live animal exports highlights growing pressure to improve animal welfare standards in the EU. Big changes are on the horizon, but the push to reform legal frameworks raises valid questions about third-country standards, as well as the extent to which the EU will wind up outsourcing its animal cruelty. Indeed, while pollution outsourcing will be mitigated by the carbon border adjustment mechanism, the question remains: What is the plan for animal welfare?
Animal welfare high on the agenda
The EU is well-positioned to be a strong normative force on animal welfare, having been a leader in formulating relevant legislation since 1998 when a Council directive established general rules for the protection of farm animals. These reflected the five freedoms: freedom from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain, injury and disease, fear and distress, and the freedom to express normal behaviour. In 2009, the Lisbon Treaty brought more upgrades, with animals officially classified as sentient beings.
But there is a growing recognition at the EU level that more needs to be done. The European Commission is reportedly considering creating the position of EU Commissioner for Animals, after acknowledging that the Union’s commitment to animal welfare has been lacking over the past two decades. In recent months, more than 140,000 citizens and 152 MEPs have joined the #EUforAnimals campaign, which is devoted to that very cause.
The issue also extends to labelling in European discussions about animal welfare. The German agriculture ministry, for example, recently announced it would like to introduce a mandatory animal welfare label for German products by 2023, an initiative that is currently being debated at the EU level. Apart from eggs, there is no EU-wide labelling system for animal welfare at present, though there is an appetite for higher standards: a petition calling for a ban on the use of cages in animal farming recently garnered more than 1.4 million signatures across the bloc.
Even more significantly, changes to the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) are in the works, while the European Green Deal’s flagship agriculture strategy, Farm to Fork, is being discussed in detail in the EU Parliament. Farm to Fork will also be an important topic for the EU Council this year, and animal welfare will feature prominently – in no small part due to recent political shifts in Germany, which put the Greens at the helm of the agriculture ministry for the first time since 2005.
The reciprocity debate
Animal welfare is an important policy priority, both for member states and the EU itself, and the European Commission has an ambitious timeline for upcoming legislation that envisions new animal welfare law proposals by 2023 to align it with “the latest scientific evidence.”
While the specifications of these changes are still unknown, EU farmers are – understandably – concerned about how the changes will impact their livelihoods. Farmers in the Single Market have called for mirror clauses that would require third-country farmers exporting to the EU to meet the same standards as farmers within the EU. The idea is something similar to the carbon border adjustment mechanism, which will impose a tax on carbon-intensive imports in an effort to prevent carbon leakage, that is, the outsourcing of pollution.
As French MEP Jérémy Decerle argued in October, Europe’s efforts to improve animal welfare should be reciprocated in trade deals with third countries. European farmers are prepared to meet new sustainability requirements, including animal welfare requirements, he said. But without support for farmers, EU production will decline and imports from abroad will increase, eroding the Union’s food autonomy. What stakeholders want to avoid is the creation of a two-tier system that kills Europe’s most fragile agricultural sectors while trade partners can produce food more cheaply due to a lack of animal and environmental minimum standards.
Officials have also pointed out that mirror clauses for animal welfare would be compliant with World Trade Organisation rules because they would be based on ethical grounds.
Of course, animal welfare is a global issue that must be understood through a prism extending well beyond the Single Market. But a lack of reciprocity in animal welfare standards would demonstrate a real inconsistency in European policy. And distorted competition between EU and third-country farmers is not only a bad idea from an ethical viewpoint – it all but guarantees that any new EU legislation would run into roadblocks.
For instance, the Mercosur trade deal between the EU and major economies in Latin America has been stalled since 2019 because of concerns that the Brazilian government is not committed to protecting the Amazon rainforest. In 2020, the French government reported that the deal would drive a significant increase in South American beef production, resulting in a 25% increase in deforestation. Irish MEP Billy Kelleher recently told media that he does not expect much progress on the deal under the French presidency of the Council of the European Union.
Mercosur did not go far enough in ensuring the same environmental standards for third-country farmers as those in the EU, and it will remain stalled for the foreseeable future as a result. Animal welfare legislation will likely face the same challenges if third-country reciprocity is left by the wayside.
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