Three Ways Brexit Could Improve Animal Welfare

18 months ago I voted to remain in the EU and if there was a second referendum tomorrow, I’d do exactly the same. But there won’t be a referendum tomorrow (or any time soon) so for the sake of my sanity it’s probably time to accept the result and move on. Putting aside arguments about bananas or what Boris spray-painted on a bus is not just about my sanity though. Loathe as I am to admit it, leaving the EU does provide the UK with some opportunities.

For all its benefits, the EU is hamstrung by its complexity and bureaucracy. It caters to a very diverse membership which makes changing laws very difficult – particularly when these changes threaten the trade interests of one or more of its member states. But on leaving the EU we will hopefully have increased autonomy, and the ability to legislate with greater freedom.

One area that I hope will benefit from this increased freedom is animal welfare. There are three ways I think this could happen.

1. Higher welfare laws: Although the UK has always had the autonomy to legislate for animal welfare, the single market has made this less likely. Higher welfare tends to cost more, which puts UK farmers at a competitive disadvantage against countries where standards are lower.

Depending (very much) on the trade deals that follow, leaving the EU could remove this barrier. We could enact higher welfare laws and overcome any competitive disadvantage by levying tariffs on low welfare food imports. An immediate target could be caged chickens which is legal under EU law, but disapproved of by the UK public.

2. Welfare-oriented subsidies: Farmers in the EU are heavily subsidised by the (much-criticised) Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Improving animal welfare is not a condition of CAP, and consequently only about 0.1% of the subsidies go towards it.

The UK government has promised to replace CAP with subsidies of its own when we leave the EU and they’d be within their rights to insist that a proportion goes towards higher welfare standards. Such a move wouldn’t be unusual – most government grants come with conditions – and could make a real difference to the lives of farm animals.

3. Incentivising farming not land: One of the biggest crimes of CAP is that it incentivises farm land rather than farming. You don’t have to produce food to receive the subsidies – your land just has to ‘look’ agricultural. This strange requirement has led to the destruction of millions of hectares of wildlife habitats, destroying landscapes and removing vital flood defences. It also incentivises sheep farming – a profitable use of the barren land. Environmentalist George Monbiot (also a remain voter) has written extensively about the damage of CAP to the environment – I recommend this article if you wish to learn more.

Free of the shackles of CAP, we will have the power to create a subsidy system that doesn’t encourage destructive practices. While we’re at it, we can stop funding wealthy landowners and ensure subsidies only go to those who actually need it.

The fear, of course, is that on leaving the EU we end up with welfare laws that are worse than those we had within it. A paper by DEFRA highlights the danger of heading in that direction, and some people worry that animal welfare will be sacrificed for a good trade deal with the USA (chlorinated chicken anyone?). But there is some hope that animals will come out well from Brexit. In his time as Secretary of State for the Environment, leading Brexiteer Michael Gove has introduced mandatory CCTV in slaughter houses, and banned a bee-threatening pesticide. Veganism is on the rise, and the British public are becoming increasingly concerned about animal welfare. Young voters – who make up the majority of new vegans, vegetarians and animal activists – tend to oppose the current UK government and Brexit. Legislating for improved animal welfare is likely to be a great way of softening their attitudes.

We don’t know what is to come when we leave the EU, but we have the power to influence it. We won’t achieve this by arguing about a bus or by heckling Nigel Farage on Question Time. But we might if we take notice of the opportunities and do all we can to achieve them. So whether it’s by writing to your MP, signing petitions or sharing this blog on social media, let’s do what we can. For the animals at least, Brexit may be a success.