27th Feb 2024


The EU's U-turn on caged farm animals — explained

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It wasn't long ago when animal advocates celebrated an unprecedented commitment by the European Commission to ban cages for 300 million farmed animals, including hens, pigs and calves.

This legally-binding promise came in response to an official EU democratic instrument — a European Citizens' Initiative — signed by 1.4 million citizens, which also received overwhelming support by the European Parliament.

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  • Since the European Citizens' Initiative instrument came into force more than a decade ago, only ten initiatives have surpassed the threshold of one million signatures (Photo: Tilly Metz MEP)

The news reverberated internationally as the EU was set to lead the world's biggest animal welfare revolution. The Union is a major trade power in animal products, therefore this new law was expected to make waves beyond the region's borders.

In an unbelievable turn of events, shortly before the promised draft laws were to be published, the EU farming lobbies succeeded in putting the European Commission in a straightjacket, thus derailing the law, as well as other new rules to reverse the course of factory farming.

First came the attack on science.

The industry lobbyists claimed the EU's scientific conclusions were not "impartial" and included "serious scientific errors". They took out their guns for hire — be it scientists or journalists, to manufacture propaganda and cloud the truth about animal farming.

Soon after came the diversion.

The lobbyists' age-old fear-mongering tactics included spreading inflated economic analyses, using cherry-picked outdated and disputed scientific studies to predict doom and gloom for the European economy. They managed to hijack the narrative, and divert attention from the fact that it is speculation on the financial markets that drove the cost-of-living crisis, not more sustainable ways of farming.

Then came the hijacking of democracy. The lobbies used the opportune timing ahead of next year's European elections and recruited European conservatives, who agreed to push back on the animal welfare revolution.

Astonishingly, the highest profile figure of the conservatives — the president of the European Commission — repeated the industry's narrative during her flagship State of the Union speech, describing new laws as a burden for farmers and ignoring the legally-binding commitment to citizens. The political power play in Germany and the EU, ahead of elections, had turned the tide.

When some of the industry's dirty tactics came to light, their lobbyists attacked campaigners for being emotional and confused, and journalists for being ignorant and biased. The industry tried to undermine the credibility of the checks and balances of democracy, with the hope to silence its critics and scare away other potential "troublemakers."

At present, as on-going battles on the decimated European Green Deal are being fought, the factory farming lobbyists are pushing for quick technological fixes to distract politicians from introducing effective policies to protect animals, dismantle factory farming and tackle the climate catastrophe.

Similar to the tobacco industry making cigarettes with filters to put consumers' minds at ease back in the 1950s, now the factory farming lobby pushes for feed additives, covered lagoons and animal breeding techniques as solutions to the pending climate disaster.

The cherry on top is the industry's new sneaky emissions-accounting method, concocted to escape accountability for their climate-wrecking emissions. All this only serves to delay the inevitable.

Having learned from the pioneer tobacco industry and the climate-denialist Big Oil, the factory farming lobby manufactures truth, then sells it to the willing and captures our political systems. But even with all their billions and their menacing armies of guns-for-hire, there is one thing that they cannot do. They cannot buy people's hearts.

This was evident in the industry's recent failed attempt to mimic citizen-led campaigning. Earlier this month, a pro-fur European Citizens' Initiative unsurprisingly closed down with just over 20,000 votes, well short of the one million required for this initiative to be examined by the European Commission.

Failed pro-fur flop

In contrast, half of all successful European Citizens' Initiatives have urged the EU to improve the lives of animals.

Since the European Citizens' Initiative instrument came into force more than a decade ago, only ten initiatives have surpassed the threshold of one million signatures. Of those ten, End the Cage Age is the only one to have received a clear commitment for action, in fact legally-binding. The commission raised the expectations of the vast majority of the public who want to see progress, then reversed course at the last-minute, snubbing the clear will of the people.

As revealed by the latest EU official poll, nine out of ten Europeans (89 percent) want the EU to stop the individual caging of farmed animals, and a clear majority (94 percent) believe that farmed animals need enough space to be able to move around, lie down and stand up. It is abundantly clear that citizens view farmed animals very differently than the EU institutions and call for more protection, which is not in place right now.

After 10 years of existence, the democratic tool of the European Citizens' Initiative is now in clear danger of being made de facto void. The European Commission's leadership is driving people to lose trust in the EU Institutions even further.

I feel betrayed. It is infuriating to see European politicians in the grips of the almighty factory farming industry. It is demoralising to witness the European project crumble down. I want to wake up from this nightmare. The EU ought to serve its citizens and set an example to the rest of the world, and this is not happening at present.

Author bio

Olga Kikou head of Compassion in World Farming EU, and the substitute representative of the Citizens' Committee of the 'End the Cage Age' European Citizens' Initiative.


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


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