4th Dec 2023

EU-Mercosur deal killed animal welfare law

  • The EU has vowed to conclude their pending trade agreement with Mercosur countries by the end of the year (Photo: Eduardo Amorim)
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The pending trade deal between the EU and South America's Mercosur countries was the 'nail in the coffin' of European plans to improve farm animal welfare, sources told the EUobserver.

In 2021 the EU announced plans to revise four key areas of welfare law: transport, slaughter, animal welfare labelling on food products, and the ways farm animals are kept, particularly those currently confined to cages and crates. An announcement of the proposed legal changes was expected before year end.

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Instead, a key September state of the union speech by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, which failed to mention the proposed new laws, was seen as a signal they had been shelved.

In the same speech, von der Leyen said the EU aimed to complete trade "deals with Australia, Mexico, and Mercosur by the end of this year."

"In my opinion, the chances of the four [animal welfare law] proposals being released as promised would have been much, much higher if the pending EU-Mercosur trade deal had not been an issue," said Joe Moran, director of European policy at Four Paws, an NGO.

Four Paws and other EU NGOs contributed to EU commission consultations on the proposed new laws. The only area where NGOs still expect to see new regulatory proposals is transport.

The decision to shelve all but one of the new welfare proposals appears to have followed a meeting that included representatives from the commission's health, trade, and agriculture policy directorates general (DGs). DG Santé, as the health DG is known, includes responsibility for food animal welfare.

"The meeting was in late July, early August and I suppose von der Leyen decided they [the proposed animal welfare laws were] too hot to handle given we are not going to get EU-Mercosur agreement easily, so her EU state-of-union speech did not mention [them]," the source said.

The sticking point at the meeting, the source said, was demands by representatives from the agriculture and health DGs that the new laws contained a 'conditionality' requiring animal protein imports to meet the same welfare standards as those produced in the EU.

This would prevent cheaper, lower welfare meat and dairy products entering the bloc.

Because trade agreements essentially rely on an import-export exchange, the conditionality was seen as placing limitations on countries wanting to export to the EU, including those involved in the long-running EU-Mercosur trade deal talks: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

"DG Trade said no, because [conditionality] will irritate trading partners when we are already facing pushback on [the EU's new] deforestation," regulations, the source said.

Yes the EU-Mercosur deal was an "extra nail in the coffin", said another source close to the talks who did not wish to be named, because the "view was if imports had to match EU welfare standards, that would be a problem."

The source said they believed "the coffin could be reopened" and, at the very least, "we can put the kept [farm] animal part of the regulations back on the table, because all we have now is transport" which, according to leaked documents is "not even very good."

Describing a similar meeting in late August, Moran said "DG Agri wants conditionality but DG Trade fears, spuriously in my opinion, that this would blow up negotiations on Mercosur. And this is in the midst of lots of von der Leyen making commitments to get the [EU-Mercosur] deal done by [the] end of year".

Moran described the postponement of the proposed welfare laws as a "ridiculous move" because they are just that, "proposals, and there will be years of transition time and money from CAP [the Common Agricultural Policy] to smooth out that transition. It was just not necessary."

"Higher EU [welfare] legislation would limit [imports from] Latin America and it's no random thing that Mercosur might be signed after key pieces of welfare legislation have been shelved," said Alice Di Concetto, a lawyer specialising in farm-animal law, who has been closely following the progress of both the proposed EU animal welfare laws and EU-Mercosur talks.

And while "Mercosur would have been front and centre" of current concerns, there are "other trade deals coming down the line … [and] long-standing issues with conditionality", for EU trade policy representatives, the source added.

This suggests concerns over conditionality in the proposed new welfare laws could stretch beyond the EU-Mercosur deal.

"The trade deal between Australia and the EU is raising the same issues as the Mercosur one, and the one that's been [recently] signed with New Zealand … so it's not just Mercosur but rather the trade policy doctrine of the European Commission," the source said.

The proposed laws would have "raised the bar on welfare for kept animals, especially in phasing out cages and banning fast growing breeds for chickens," said Stéphanie Ghislain, political affairs manager at Eurogroup for Animals, an NGO.

"On transport, most importantly it could reduce journey times to no more than eight hours and possibly less for some species and pregnant animals," she said.

The "labelling part would have indicated how animals are raised and slaughtered, although how exactly that would work is still unclear [and] … would be voluntary, which is not really helpful. For slaughter, we would finally have rules for fish, and a ban on water-bath stunning [for poultry]," she added.

The proposals would also have met public expectations on animal welfare, said Di Concetto.

"Last month, the European Commission published its latest Eurobarometer survey. It shows an increasing number of EU citizens think farm animals should be better treated compared to the 2015 edition."

Without the proposed laws "poultry, calves, cattle, and pigs all over the EU will continue to live in tiny cages, spend far longer than eight hours in transit and continue to suffer unduly during slaughter. And no legislation will require corporations to disclose this type of information to consumers," said Di Concetto.

Asked about claims the EU-Mercosur trade deal killed off the animal welfare proposals, a spokesperson said the European Commission does "not comment on internal deliberations."

Their email added that the "proposal on the protection of animals during transport, one of the four legs of the legislation, is the most advanced and will be presented in December 2023."

It also said the Commission has "responded positively" to the 2020 European Citizen's Initiative petition, signed by 1.4 million people, "which aims to phase out and finally prohibit the use of cages for certain species of animals."

Author bio

Sophie Kevany is a freelance journalist writing for The Guardian, Vox, Sentient Media, The Irish Times and other publications. She previously worked for Dow Jones and Agence France Presse (AFP).

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