Brexit and Animal Welfare: Opportunity or Risk? Commentary
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Brexit and Animal Welfare: Opportunity or Risk?

Britain is a country of animal lovers and has a long history of spearheading animal protection measures with global reach. This history can be traced back to 1822 with the introduction of Martin’s Act. The Brambell Report of 1965 and the UK joining forces with European Communities, the predecessor to the EU, in 1973 were major milestones. Brambell’s five freedoms have been the foundation of legislation concerning animal welfare around the world; in 1999, the UK used its presidency of the EU to press for the adoption of a protocol that regarded animals as “sentient” and not just as agricultural “goods.”

The UK has been a front-runner in developing EU laws concerning animal protection, often called a “beacon for animal welfare” in the EU. However, something is set to change post-Brexit. There are enormous consequences for humans and non-humans alike. The UK can remain the world leader in animal welfare only by maintaining its progressive animal protection reforms and simultaneously maintaining high baseline standards concerning its agricultural policy.

This article will assess the threats, as well as opportunities available for animal protection post-Brexit.

The Increasing Threat to Farmed and Wild Animals

Steven McCulloch has argued that the impact on farmed animals will determine Brexit’s overall effect on animal protection, whether favorable or adverse. The reasons were quite clear. The UK’s departure from the EU placed it outside the block’s Common Agricultural Policy, allowing the UK to craft its own agricultural policies that either favor animal welfare or allow for lower standards, the choices brought on by Brexit will have a major impact on animal welfare across the globe.

The UK in response introduced its landmark “Agricultural Bill” intending to deliver a “green Brexit” in 2018. Setting aside all the positives that this bill brings about for the UK’s agricultural transition in 2021, the bill still does not talk about how animal imports that fail to meet animal welfare standards will be prevented.

This can be understood as the UK’s window of opportunity to sign a free trade deal with the US. It is not clear whether such an agreement would force US producers to raise and match their standards to the UK’s or, given the UK’s desperation to sign a post-Brexit trade deal, be signed without adequate animal welfare measures. The latter would result in UK farmers having to compete against low-welfare imports. This regulatory burden and the slowdown in trade measures related to animal welfare are already noticeable, following the path of “Global Britain.”

A more contemporary example of how farm animals are being abused can be drawn from the recent outbreak of COVID-19, which has resulted in the transport of animals not complying with EU law. The new EU guidelines for border management completely disregard both the well-being of farm animals and public health by allowing long border delays with no food, no water and no place to rest. This inhumane trade involving live animals utterly disrespects animal welfare and poses a significant threat to both animals and humans.

Also related to wildlife welfare, the upcoming threat to the “precautionary principle” involving wild habitats is of utmost concern. The present EU withdrawal bill omits the precautionary principle, which demands industry actors prove that their actions will not harm wildlife or their habitats. This means that unless the UK government gives effect to the precautionary principle by way of a new law, the withdrawal bill will certainly rip the heart out of environmental law including Brexit’s role in animal conservation and development.

International Trade Law, a Solution?

One of the biggest post-Brexit threats to animal welfare in the UK is free trade agreements (FTAs). Leaving the EU will mean leaving the single market. The UK, then, faces the problem of re-negotiating all the existing FTAs it had enjoyed as part of the EU. The EU has ensured a high degree of uniformity in animal trade and protections for animal welfare. It is now incumbent upon the UK to maintain consistency and high standards and evade the danger of low animal welfare protections in the new FTAs.

The Trans Pacific Partnership’s chapter on the environment has been a ray of light so far as trade and animal welfare law go. Such new forms of international cooperation to protect animals, including model provisions on trade and sustainable development and conditional liberalization of EU standards, will surely encourage future FTAs to adopt high animal welfare standards.

Suggestive Measures

The following steps can be taken to ensure that animal welfare is not compromised post-Brexit:

UK farmers and land managers must be adequately incentivized and compensated by way of farm incentive schemes enabling catchment sensitive farming and improving the lives of farmed animals and their environment. The UK Agricultural Bill is worth mentioning in this regard. The government should secure the inclusion of high farm animal welfare standards in the future FTAs. This step can be supported by import restrictions and by exploring recent developments in WTO law on animal welfare.

A ban on live animal exports for slaughter and animals used for testing and research is of utmost importance. The monitoring must not be weakened by the Home Office on animal testing and research that causes needless suffering and pain to animals. Additionally, the illegal trade of wild animals must be prohibited and taken care of by way of intelligence sharing across borders and implementing the EU trafficking programs.

So far as companion animals are concerned, a highly qualified veterinary team must be appointed along with the required veterinary medicines so that the animal health profession is not hampered post-Brexit. It is pertinent to note that, vets play a crucial role in also testing and certifying farm animals for trade.

The ‘precautionary principle’ must be duly incorporated into UK legislation and the existing wildlife legislation must be modified to maintain high standards of animal protection and conservation.

To ensure higher animal protection standards, Green members of the European Parliament have constantly insisted on “green guarantees” which will provide protectionist measures and safeguard the lives of animals globally. These guarantees must be effectively and efficiently implemented.

Reinventing farming subsidies or going with the Common Agricultural Policy to provide financial support to farmers must be a priority for the UK. Financial support should be directed toward those who maintain high animal welfare standards and should not go to those with low animal welfare and environmental standards or those promoting slaughter and illicit trade. Future FTAs must not undermine developments and progress made, so far as sustainable farming methods and improved animal welfare are concerned.

Last, but not the least, the animal welfare laws must be improved constantly. Animals must still be recognized as “sentient beings,” and animal welfare science and recent developments in animal law must be duly recognized and further legislated for animal well-being. The hard-fought and ambitious animal protection laws must be protected. The UK should maintain its reputation as a”champion of animal welfare.”

How Can the EU Help?

History tells us that the EU has among the world’s highest animal welfare standards. Amidst the strong outcry not to water down animal protection laws post-Brexit, the environment secretary Michael Gove promised “animal sentience” would be recognized and strengthened in new legislation. Still, there is a lot more that the UK can do in concert with the EU.

Puppy smuggling is a growing problem. The UK’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquired into puppy smuggling in 2019. The withdrawal negotiations between the UK and the EU can affect the UK’s options for puppy smuggling.

The import of foie gras and its sale under the free movement of goods principle has not been prevented by the EU, despite prohibitions against its production in much of Europe. The UK could ban its import with the help of the EU. Additionally, post-Brexit deals could allow for the caging of laying hens, the leaving of ducks without bathing water, and for the import of chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-treated dairy products. Most importantly, the current Animal Welfare Act of 2006 does not cover “free-living wildlife.”

While the UK will be signing trade deals as a more independent nation post-Brexit, there will be more potential and influence at the international level if UK policy continues to align with EU policy. Otherwise, animal welfare will be negatively impacted. This complements conditional liberalization which falls in line with the Eurobarometer study on animal welfare, a rallying cry for animal protection.

Brexit provides substantial prospects for animal welfare reform in the UK. The government needs to commit to a progressive agenda when it comes to the trade and import of animal and animal products to have a positive impact on animal protection around the world.

Tushar Behl is in his final year of studies in the School of Law at the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies in Dehradun, India.

Deeksha Sharma is a third-year law student at the Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University in Lucknow, India.

Suggested citation: Tushar Behl and Deeksha Sharma, Brexit and Animal Welfare: Opportunity or Risk?, JURIST – Student Commentary, April 19, 2020,


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