In 1997, European lawmakers agreed that animals should be protected in all areas of EU trade; the definition of animals as sentient beings was adopted to show animal welfare should never be ignored.
We’re known for our caring nature in the South West, and a lot of constituents have written to me in the past with concerns over animal exports from the UK. Some on the Leave side are using this as a platform to call for us to exit the European Union, in a cynical attempt to manipulate peoples’ caring nature into votes for their own cause – one we know involves a bonfire of legislation they label “red tape”. As animal welfare advocates myself and the rest of the Greens-EFA group will continue to be vocal supporters of abolishing the practice. Unfortunately leaving the EU will not help us achieve our goal.
To be clear, there have been no live export sailings from the South West, or anywhere in the UK to date this year, and all sailings for slaughter last year were of sheep, from the port of Ramsgate in the South East. As Vice President of the Animal Welfare intergroup here in the European Parliament, my Green colleague for the region Keith Taylor MEP has been working tirelessly on this issue, whether live animals are exported from the UK or elsewhere in the European Union.
Whether a member or not of the EU, the UK is bound by the rules and regulations that come with being a member of the World Trade Organisation. These rules, as the RSPCA have pointed out, enshrine the principle of free movement of trade. Should the UK attempt to unilaterally ban live exports, it is likely that such a trade restriction would be overruled by the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
A major impediment to the adoption of stronger animal protection legislation by the EU (and other countries) is the free trade legislation of the WTO. The conventional view is that while a WTO member country may prohibit the use of cruel practices in its own jurisdiction, it cannot restrict the import/export of products with other countries. EU officials often state that they cannot take a particular action because it would be incompatible with the WTO rules. For example, the EU has been unable to ban:
- The import of products made with eggs from hens kept in barren battery cages, despite the EU prohibiting this farming system across member states.
- The import of fur products from the US, Canada and Russia which use cruel leghold traps, instead they have negotiated agreements with these countries that at the moment do little to truly discourage their use.
We can only speculate about what the Conservatives would do in the event of a vote to Leave, but I doubt that a party that has already tried to weaken our animal welfare laws would put banning live exports at the top of its agenda.
Either way, a UK ban on live exports is not the route to bring about an end to his trade. As a part of the EU, we can push for tougher welfare protections for exported animals. The recently launched Stop The Trucks campaign is calling on the EU Commission to review and update Council Regulation 1/2005 on the protection of animals during transport and Austria, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands have all submitted an official request for such (the UK is yet to do so).
The introduction of stronger regulations that impose maximum journey times and better conditions that align with animal welfare science, could bring about an end to live exports from the UK as the majority of journeys would fall outside the maximum recommended journey time of eight hours. For example trials by Compassion in World Farming have highlighted 18 hour journeys from Northern England to France (630 miles) and 23 hour journeys from Southern England to South Germany (590 miles). So we see again that with the political will, we can achieve great things through the European institutions. If animals had a vote, they’d vote to remain!