Brexit and Animal Welfare – threats and opportunities

If there is one topic on which UK and other EU citizens do agree, it is the importance of promoting high animal welfare standards. As with many other policy areas, Brexit will have an impact on the welfare of animals, both in the UK and on the continent. Depending on the outcome of negotiations, potential downsides can be reduced and new opportunities could arise.

Border checks

The impact of Brexit will be felt at the borders. Thousands of live animals cross the UK-EU borders every day, and not only on the island of Ireland. Yet as the only land border between the UK and the EU, changing the deeply ingrained supply routes or adding new checks could become particularly problematic.

In common with any type of products, live animals have to be checked at the border, which can lead to huge delays and to animals having to wait in poor conditions for days. To better understand what is at stake, one can look at the border between Bulgaria and Turkey. Although Turkey and the EU have a customs union, it does not cover agricultural products and there is no veterinary arrangement. Animals crossing the border are thus subjected to all necessary checks.

At this border, animals wait an average of six hours – most often without sufficient care and in horrendous conditions. The number of animals crossing the UK-EU borders is far higher and the existing infrastructure is not adequate to ensure the welfare of animals is respected during crossings. In a nutshell, the more frictionless the border, the better it will be for the animals’ welfare.

So what are the checks? In any other scenario than a customs union, the origin of the animals will have to be checked, in order to respect the “Rules of Origin” that will be contained in the future EU-UK trade agreement. Unless an arrangement is reached between the UK and the EU to ensure veterinary standards equivalence and to abolish controls at the border, they will have to go through proper veterinary checks. It is likely that if such an agreement is to be reached the EU will insist on the UK aligning with EU’s rules.

This has happened to both Switzerland and San Marino. A “single veterinary agreement” links the EU and Switzerland recognizing the equivalence between the EU and Swiss rules and creating mechanisms to jointly discuss arising issues. The arrangement implies a complete alignment between EU and Swiss rules. San Marino is in a customs union with the EU covering agricultural products, and the agreement specifies that to make it work, San Marino has to adopt EU’s veterinary rules, entailing complete alignment as well.

In case frictionless trade cannot be ensured between both partners, adequate border facilities will have to be built to ensure the welfare of animals is protected during their transport. Some authorities, such as the Port of Dublin, have already started this process

Tariffs on agricultural products

Trade has an impact on the welfare of animals farmed in a country. If imported products do not respect animal welfare standards equivalent to those applied locally, the level playing field will not be guaranteed and local producers will lose competitiveness.  This might lead to pressure on the UK government not to improve, or even to eliminate, existing animal welfare standards, so that UK farmers can better face foreign competition both on the UK market, and abroad.

Aside from milk, the UK is not self-sufficient when it comes to agricultural products, relying partly on imports for what it consumes. The EU and the UK are pivotal to each other in that sector. For instance, 98% of the beef exported by the UK goes to the EU and 90% of the beef the UK imports comes from the EU. Overall, the EU is the main market for UK farm products.

If the EU and the UK were not to conclude an agreement – or not to agree on preferential tariffs on agricultural products – Britain would have to revert to most favoured nation (MFN) terms, meaning it would be likely to impose EU current MFN tariffs, which are usually quite high for agricultural products. In addition, under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, it would not be able to give preferential treatment to the EU, or to any other country in which animal welfare standards are considered higher, unless it strikes a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the partner. This situation is likely to lead to cheaper imports into the UK, meeting lower standards and putting pressure on local British producers.

However, free to conduct its own trade policy (in any scenario currently considered for Brexit, although some might bring more constraints), the UK could defend its higher animal welfare standards by providing better access only to products respecting equivalent standards. Yet it remains to be seen whether the British government will prioritize this issue in future trade negotiations. Many countries do not share Britain’s concerns for animal welfare and will be very reluctant to agree on any requirements being imposed on their exports.

Unilateral trade restriction measures

Outside the EU, the UK will also have to decide whether it will maintain the unilateral trade restrictions linked to animal welfare currently in force at EU level. This concerns, by way of some examples, hormone-beef, chlorine-washed chicken or pork injected with ractopamine. If the UK does, it remains to be seen whether the US, for instance, would take London to the WTO to dispute the legality of such restrictions. Negotiating compensation with exasperated partners might become more difficult once outside the EU.

Out of a customs union, the UK would, however, technically have the opportunity to impose more trade restrictions based on animal welfare. Such restrictions are feasible, if well crafted, based on the public morals exception contained in GATT Article XX, as proven by the EU ban on seal products. Britain could for instance ban the imports of puppies under a certain age to decrease the risk of trafficking, as well as the live exports of animals for further fattening and slaughtering.

Other opportunities will arise with Brexit, such as a new farm support system that promotes animal welfare, as well as other threats, like the lost access to specific tracking systems and to regulatory bodies. With public demand for better animal welfare on both sides of the Channel, concrete options need to be explored to reduce the negative impact that will be felt by millions of animals in the country.

Stephanie Ghislain


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