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How Will Brexit Affect Animal Rights?

By Tyler, Global Vegans

By Tyler, Global Vegans

On the 31st December 2020, Britain officially left the EU - the highly controversial departure we all know as Brexit. During the UK’s four-and-a-half-year transition period, preparations for Britain’s departure from the bloc inspired myriad questions about the future of the United Kingdom.

For many, these questions centered around immigration, freedom of movement and of course, blue passports. For others, questions about the stability of the UK’s economy and trade relations with the EU were the most pressing. For Global Vegans, the primary question has always been what Brexit might mean for animal welfare.

Why? Because the UK’s approach towards animal welfare is no longer governed by EU protection laws. It is now in the hands of the British government. Currently, EU member states must comply with legislation that regulates the treatment of animals in agriculture, science and the wild.

We are under no illusion that EU regulations serve to protect animals against exploitation and cruelty. What constitutes animal welfare legislation falls far below what most vegans would consider fair. However, it is alarming to imagine that regulations protecting animal welfare in the UK could become worse.

We might not know the long-term effects of Brexit, but what we do know is that the Conservative Party has a track record of putting money over morality. We can only assume that Britain will continue along this trajectory. Support for large corporations is woven into the fabric of the Tory Party’s manifesto and is likely to govern new laws and trade deals over the coming years.

Unfortunately, the British government has a worrying history of making claims that never materialise in law. Most recently, Parliament refused to amend a trade bill safeguarding lower-standard food imports - allowing ministers to authorise food imports without the Government’s approval. This comes after years of promising that the UK will not import hormone-treated beef or chlorinated chicken from US-based corporations.

This is perhaps not surprising, given that Johnson and the Conservative Party have consistently acted to please big business, including Britain’s animal agriculture industry. A key player in the UK economy, it is highly likely that new animal welfare policies will be made with farmers’ interests (and profits) in mind. As a result, animal exploitation - from the culling of badgers to the mass slaughter of cows, pigs and chickens - could potentially become even less regulated and more harmful than the systems we have seen before.

If you are particularly optimistic, you may be hopeful that leaving the EU under Boris Johnson will be a positive step for animal welfare. After all, the Government has the opportunity to enact truly positive change now that Britain is no longer bound by EU legislation.

This could begin with Johnsons’ pledge to ban the live export of animals for fattening and slaughter, an issue he has vocalised his frustration with since the 2019 election campaign. An embargo on live exports is something he continues to support, and in December 2020, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) finally confirmed their plans to ban live exports from England and Wales. Whether Johnsons’ government will follow through on this without intense public pressure is another story.

Public support for Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds, has also fuelled speculation that the PM will use Brexit to make life better for animals in the UK. A self-professed conservationist, Symonds was named Peta’s UK Person of the Year in 2020 for her commitment to animal rights activism. Nevertheless, it seems far-fetched to assume that her influence might sway Johnson to push forward laws that truly benefit animal health and wellbeing.

At best, Symonds may encourage Johnson to become more vocal about animal welfare issues. Earlier this year, he joined her in criticising Japan for its commercial whaling efforts. But, can we trust his government to move further than public statements and PR opportunities?

It’s unlikely, given that only a few weeks have passed since Brexit and the Government has already proven that industry comes first. In the first few days of January, Defra authorised the use of harmful neonicotinoids for sugar beet production following pressure from farming groups - despite evidence linking these pesticides to declining bee populations. Neonicotinoid use has been banned in EU member states since 2017.

Holding Johnson and his cabinet accountable for their actions has, therefore, never been so important. For the UK to become a leader in progressive animal welfare laws, the Government must seize this opportunity to push through legislation driven by ethics rather than profit. Positive change could happen, but we need to make it clear to Parliament that ignoring public opinion on animal rights issues is not an option.

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