It's high time for an EU Commissioner for Animal Welfare

It's high time for an EU Commissioner for Animal Welfare

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Petition for an EU Commissioner for Animal Welfare

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Animals need you

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.

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.

Time for a 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.

They deserve you

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.

The attribution of responsibilities to the new Commissioners designated by EU Member States has been announced by President-elect Ursula von der Leyen.

In any change threats and opportunities are present, but we hope that Ms von der Leyen will be more ambitious on Animal Welfare than her predecessor and allocate more financial resources to further strengthen the EU commitment on this front.

Some fundamental steps could be adopted to make it happen. The allocation of more financial resources to a team dedicated to the improvement and enforcement of animal welfare legislation in the Union would help restore a positive and proactive attitude on this front. Some pieces of EU law on animal welfare are outdated, and some species still have no protection whatsoever, therefore a set of legislative proposals should be produced.

Finally, a major and iconic step forward would be the explicit inclusion of the competence for Animal Welfare in the job title of the relevant Commissioner. As we welcome the decision to designate Frans Timmermans as Executive Vice President for the European Green Deal, we strongly suggest that the competence for animal welfare be part of his portfolio and integrated in his title.

This not only would respond the demands of the vast majority of EU citizens to grant more relevance and resources to this topic, but also contribute to bridge the gap between citizens and institutions by doing more to grant animals the better treatment they deserve.

5 reasons why we need an EU Commissioner for Animal Welfare

  1. EU citizens regularly mention animal welfare as one of their main concerns in most surveys, but this attention has not received adequate responses by the EU Commission in recent years. An EU Commissioner with a specific competence for this topic would help to bridge the gap between citizens’ demands and the response of their institutions.

  2. Art 13 TFEU has been celebrated worldwide as a milestone to provide animals with the higher level of protection EU citizens demand, but in reality what has happened over the last few years has gone in the opposite direction. In the hearts and minds of Europeans Animal Welfare deserves explicit responsibility, a clear commitment, and adequate resources.

  3. An EU Commissioner for Animal Welfare would be more likely to guarantee a more effective enforcement and updating of existing legislation, and a proactive approach to propose new measures when necessary.

  4. Improvements of Animal Welfare should not be blocked by specific economic interest, but be pursued as one of the key explicit objectives of the competent Commissioner.

  5. 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 EU Commission’s 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. The appointment of an EU Commissioner with an explicit responsibility for Animal Welfare would 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.