We British have always had a strange relationship with animals. We spend £5 billion a year on our pets and it is often said that we love our dogs more than our children (perfectly understandable, in my book). It makes sense, then, that we have some of the world’s highest animal welfare standards. Our European neighbours don’t always have quite the same attitude. If we could ask our four-legged friends how they’d vote in the EU referendum, I’m pretty sure they’d woof, miaow or moo for ‘out’.
Take the Maltese, for example, who enjoy shooting turtle doves as they migrate every spring (a banned sport for which Malta has been given special dispensation). The French prize gastronomy far above animal husbandry, so force-feed their geese to make foie gras. Bullfighting, meanwhile, is still a popular pastime for many Spaniards.
The fact is that Britain is better at animal welfare, with or without the EU. And in many ways, being in the EU holds British farmers back. Why? Because, as with all the other legislation handed down to us from Brussels, we stick to the rules, while many other countries treat them as no more than vague suggestions.
Take sow stalls — narrow metal cages in which female pigs are kept while breeding. The UK banned them in 1999; the EU finally followed suit in 2013. The trouble is, many countries simply ignore the EU ruling. More than two years after the legislation was put in place, six countries had still failed to officially comply, and the National Pig Association believes that other countries which claim to stick to the rules are also flouting them.
The continued use of sow stalls isn’t just an animal welfare concern. They cut costs — that’s why they were invented — so EU countries that tacitly allow them can produce cheaper pork and still sell it into the British market. Our farmers struggle to compete: they’re being punished for obeying the law.
Similar cases are not hard to find. In 2013 Italy ran into trouble with the European Court. The Italians had known for 13 years that a ban on battery cages for egg-laying hens would apply from 2012 — but claimed they hadn’t had enough time to ensure all farms complied. They lost that argument, but all they had to pay as a result was the legal costs of the case — no fine was levied.
Furthermore, as a member of the EU, the UK cannot prevent the transportation of live animals, which are subjected to needlessly long, stressful and cramped journeys to be slaughtered on the Continent. Banning the practice might hinder inter-EU trade, so tens of thousands of British lambs are exported live and bleating to be killed in abattoirs which wouldn’t meet our welfare standards.
EU rules also allow for the free movement of pets thanks to pet passports. Animal charities believe the system is being abused, with hundreds if not thousands of puppies brought here each year on fake papers. Bred in terrible conditions, they are crammed into lorries (or sometimes suitcases) and shipped across the Continent for up to 40 hours — at less than eight weeks old. Our own Defra should of course do more to stop this, but the sad fact is the EU doesn’t care about the breeding of dogs half as much as we do.
Another welfare issue is Boris Johnson’s favourite hobby horse: the funding of bullfighting. In 2013 it emerged that payments were being made under the Common Agricultural Policy to Spanish farmers rearing bulls for bullfights — more ‘oh no’ than ‘olé’. The practice might well be part of Spanish culture, but it’s hard to see how it doesn’t break all kinds of animal welfare codes. MEPs voted last year to stop EU money going to breeders of fighting bulls — but under CAP rules the vote was ‘not executable’. Unless those rules are changed, it will continue to fund bullfighting. One has to ask: why would animal lovers choose to stay in a union where we have no control over where our money goes — and it’s virtually impossible to change things?
If we left the EU, then we would of course have to comply with the regulations of any country to which we exported. But we would have the option of refusing to trade with countries that didn’t meet our welfare standards, thus encouraging a better standard of welfare everywhere, not just at home.
Leaving the EU would let us make the most of our reputation as animal lovers. Rather than compromising our standards, we could brand ourselves as a beacon of higher-welfare farming — and set an example not just to Europe but to the world.