Saturday

17th Apr 2021

Opinion

Time for an EU commissioner for animal welfare

  • The official recognition of animals as sentient beings – something that most of us would consider as stating the obvious – only arrived in 1999, when the Treaty of Amsterdam entered into force (Photo: Eurogroup for Animals)

One of the ideas on which different stakeholders seem to converge is that European citizens care for animals and would like to see their welfare needs taken into account even when they are used for food production or other commercial activities.

Nowadays it is seen as evident that animals can feel pleasure and pain, can enjoy life or suffer.

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Nevertheless, until 22 years ago in EU legislation and in most member states they were not seen differently from carrots and tomatoes: mere agricultural products with no feelings or needs, and legislation on their treatment was mostly aimed to maximise profit reducing expenses, increasing outputs at the lowest possible cost while preserving food safety.

Specific legislation on animal welfare have been produced at the EU level since 1974, when some welfare requirements were included to ensure that animals are stunned before slaughter (with some exceptions), and landmark laws were introduced since the early 1990s to phase out inherently inhumane farming practices such as the veal crates, sow stalls and conventional battery cages for egg production.

More can and must be done even in those production systems, but these were historical turning points.

20 years of progress

The official recognition of animals as sentient beings – something that most of us would consider as stating the obvious – only arrived in 1999, when the Treaty of Amsterdam entered into force.

For the first time, a protocol on the protection and welfare of animals was annexed to it, which defined animals as sentient beings. In 2007 that text was transformed via the Lisbon Treaty into Article 13 of the treaty on the functioning of the EU.

This historical change has been followed by similar acts approved around the world (France, Quebec, New Zealand, Colombia, Wallonia among others).

In the Brussels region animals are recognised as "sentient beings, having own interests and dignity, deserving to be specifically protected."

Nevertheless, most governments have continued to place the competence for animal welfare under the responsibility of the ministry of agriculture - thus perpetuating the idea that animals are agricultural products rather than sentient beings deserving respect, and therefore leaving their welfare subordinate to economic interests.

This can and should change.

In the EU institutions – in compliance with the new requirements enshrined in the Treaty of Amsterdam – in 2000 this responsibility was transferred from DG Agriculture to DG Health, although any proposal on farm animal welfare de fact requires the support of DG AGRI, and on wild animals of DG ENVI, just to give two examples.

In any future reforms of the competences of the commission it should be ensured that such progress is not reversed.

In member states change has been slower, and is still missing in most countries.

In Austria and Italy, the competence has been transferred to the ministry of health.

In Malta a secretariat for agriculture, fisheries and animal rights exists in the ministry for the environment, sustainable development and climate change.

In Sweden the ministry of enterprise and innovation is responsible for both rural affairs and animal welfare.

Most notably, in the three regional governments of Belgium, since 2014 ministers have been given a title that includes animal welfare as one of their main competences, thus facilitating the adoption of more progressive legislation and policies, and their enforcement.

The Eurobarometer Attitudes of EU citizens towards Animal Welfare published in 2016, the European Court of Auditors' report on animal welfare of November 2018, and the report of the online consultation on the Future of Europe of April 2019 are only some of the documents that confirm the high interest of EU citizens for animal welfare and their demand to increase the level of protection granted to animals used in economic activities such as farming.

As we write, it is still unclear what the setting of the new commission will look like.

In any change, threats and opportunities are present, but we hope that president Ursula von der Leyen will be more ambitious than her predecessor on animal welfare and allocate more financial resources.

Including the competence for animal welfare explicitly in the job title of the relevant commissioner not only would respond the demands of the vast majority of EU citizens but would also help to show them that something so close to their heart is taken seriously by the European institutions, and more will be done to grant animals the better treatment they deserve.

Author bio

Michel Vandenbosch is president of the Belgian-based GAIA (Global Action in the Interests of Animals) campaign group. This opinion piece is endorsed by the Eurogroup for Animals.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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