The dawning reality of Brexit means that we live in interesting times. By extension, the sentient animals that we share our island of Great Britain also live in interesting times. Much ink has been spilled since the British people voted in a 2016 referendum to leave the EU. Brexiteers claim that leaving the EU will release our beloved nation from the chains of EU bureaucracy; Parliament will be sovereign once more and free to make laws for the good of British people. Remainers, in contrast, argue that Brexit will lead to national isolation, economic depression and endless waiting in European airports.
Here, I want to spill a little more ink by making the following claim. In the great political turmoil of Brexit, it is not on us relatively fortunate humans that the greatest risks fall on. Rather, it is our sentient nonhuman British fellows, and particularly the billions of farm animals, that are in the greatest danger of a calamitous drop in living standards.
That Brexit poses the greatest risk to our sentient compatriots follows from three premises. First, the EU has the most progressive animal welfare policies in the world. If you were a pig on a farm, a rat in a lab or a deer roaming in the wilderness, the chances are you would be better of living in the EU, rather than outside of it. Secondly, there are a great deal many more farm animals than there are other categories of animal. In the UK we raise and slaughter around one billion land farm animals each year. Of these, 950 million are broiler chickens that we consume.
It is with such figures mind that we should carefully scrutinise government activity in the dizzying kaleidoscope of Brexit. I applaud the government for committing to banning the use of wild animal in circuses, for instance. A travelling circus environment simply cannot meet the welfare needs of wild animals. Despite this, the government licensed only 37 wild animals for use in circuses between 2013 and 2017. We must, as a nation, ensure our government is not giving to a few camels, tigers and zebras what is taken away from billions of farm animals post-Brexit.
Thirdly, realpolitik suggests that animal welfare won’t be at the top of the agenda for those that make important decisions at international negotiating tables. Compounding this, the UK simply does not have the economic and political clout in trade negotiations of the EU. The substantial risks of Brexit to the billions of British farm animals in particular must be understood in the context of a combination of these three factors. As the UK leaves the EU to negotiate trade deals with the rest of the world, it does so on the following terms. It no longer has the powerful negotiating position of the largest political and economic union in the world. EU policy on tariffs means that the political union acts as a powerful fortress to protect the welfare of the sentient animals within it. Trade tariffs effectively prevent the import of meat, dairy and other animal products that have been produced in lesser welfare conditions than those in the EU.
In contrast, whilst the UK has a proud history of a powerful nation, and will continue to punch above her weight, the reality is that she is significantly less powerful in negotiating terms outside of the EU. In the realpolitik of trade negotiations, the welfare of British animals is not likely to be a priority for the major players. We all know what happens when a fox enters a henhouse, and chlorinated chicken may be the best we can hope for when powerful US agricultural interests trump voiceless British sentient animals. Indeed, if nonhumans were to have voted in the EU referendum, Britain Stronger in Europe would have won by a landslide. Just as turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, sentient animals would not vote to leave the most progressive animal welfare political and economic union the world has seen.
However, we are where we are, and that includes billions of sentient nonhuman British compatriots. These are sentient beings who did not vote for Brexit, but at the same time have potentially most to lose in the political upheaval. So what can the UK Government do about it? In November 2017, Parliament voted against an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill, tabled by the Green MP Caroline Lucas. The amendment stated that on leaving the EU, ‘obligations and rights’ set out in Article 13 of the Treaty of Lisbon shall be recognised in UK law on Brexit day. The amendment was rejected primarily because Conservative MPs were whipped to vote against it. This caused a media furore, with some writers claiming that Parliament was denying that nonhuman animals were sentient, i.e. they could not feel pleasure and pain like us humans can, but are more like inanimate rocks and stones.
As a consequence, the Conservative Government has since introduced its own draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill. The draft Bill seeks to bring Article 13 into UK law, although crucially the protections offered to animals are weaker. Article 13 of the Treaty of Lisbon states that in formulating and implementing policies, the Union and Member States shall, ‘since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals’. Whereas Article 13 confers a duty on member states, i.e. all emanations of the state, the draft bill places the duty only on Ministers of the Crown. Further, the draft bill, published for pre-legislative scrutiny, states that Ministers of the Crown must have ‘regard’ to the welfare needs of animals.
Animal protection organisations and experts in animal welfare have submitted consultation responses detailing that the bill must use the ‘full regard’ of the original Article 13. Despite this, rumour suggests that the government is to use ‘all due regard’, a clear diminution in the protection of animal welfare. If government proceeds with ‘all due regard’, it will break its pledge made in the ministerial statement of the same Bill, that animals will not lose any recognitions or protections on Brexit. In the great political turmoil of Brexit, the Conservative Government simply must pay no less than full regard to animal welfare to protect British animals.