A "Deficiency of Moral Leadership"
The other side of the EU "Democratic Deficiency" coin
by Dr Peter Bowen-Walker
SYNOPSIS: The UK is a nation of animal lovers - or at least that is what we like to think. So when we peer over the English Channel at our now peaceful neighbours we are perplexed and disgusted by the desire to tolerate bull fighting in the name of "traditional culture". Transporting live animals to the continent is tolerated but disliked because "that is what the rules demand". Fur farming is now entirely prohibited here in Blighty - but "over there" the largest number of fur farms in the world are shamefully continuing to exploit animals for no better reasons than vanity and profit. Ritual slaughter of animals without prior-stunning is widely perceived as unnecessary and alien to our values and culture, but we live with it because of Europe's shame - which is its legacy from the middle of the last century.
We want to trade with Europe, but frankly - the British don't get the EU! What is it for really? It wants to interfere and tell us what to do - but it doesn't seem to like animals very much and it appears to lack the moral leadership we hold so dear to do anything about it! Do we really belong in this club?
As a perplexed Brit, I want to make a few passing comments on why animal welfare violations sanctioned directly by community laws or which are simply ignored on the altar of subsidiarity and "competence" are a real disincentive for the UK to remain within the EU.
The recent Romanian dog culling scandal will profoundly damage the British view of both Romania and the EU and the possibility that our tax is used to subsidise it will frankly push many people to vote to extricate the country from the EU if an In/Out referendum is offered in the near future.
Can they suffer?
by Dr Peter Bowen-Walker - I am proud to be a citizen of the European Union - at times! When I consider the world-leading work the EU has done on protecting the environment, I rejoice. When I consider initiatives such as Natura 2000 which aims to protect our valuable natural heritage now and for future generations, I feel inspired and want to get behind the EU project.
Nevertheless - when I consider the reality for animals in Europe in the 21st century - I despair. In fact, at times I am positively ashamed of being associated with a capitalist block which treats animals as little more than property to be farmed, experimented on and culled when they are unwanted. Such an exploitative, speciesist perspective which in reality treats animals as scarcely any different to other common chattels is flawed and deeply offensive to me.
As long ago as the late 1700s, great thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham were actively publishing their concerns about the way animals were treated by so called "civilized" people in Great Britain. In his seminal work in 1789 'An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation', Bentham opined that the wellbeing of animals is no less important than that of human beings, and must be taken into account because as he so eloquently put it:
“The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
Some 200 years since he wrote this compelling sentence - the EU, a trading block of the richest and most technologically advanced nations on earth has scarcely moved forward in relation to how some animals are treated!
Take for example the transport of six million live animals across the continent. Every year - this unnecessary process is permitted to continue in the name of free trade. We know these animals suffer great distress and many die in the process. The EU's own reports indicate many member states fail to enforce their obligations to ensure animals are given even the most basic provisions (such as food and water) and protections (transporting times) on the journey.
Transporting animals not only raises issues of animal welfare, but flies in the face of good environmental stewardship due to the use of fossil fuels required to move them. It may make economic sense but it makes no environmental or animal welfare sense to do so - and as such makes commercial but not moral sense! The EU needs to evolve its values to extend in practice and action beyond economic efficiency into the area of animal welfare.
A central rationale for the creation of the original EC was to encourage cooperation between European nation states so that "Europa's" great folly (the two World Wars) might be rendered impossible in future. I do not need to remind readers of the appalling atrocities committed during the 1939-1945 conflict - but it is worth taking a moment to consider the pitiful but analogous state some of our fellow vertebrates are compelled to endure today in the name of food, medicine, profit and vanity! I hope one day - the EU will find a way to ensure all sentient creatures are treated with dignity, respect and compassion. In order to do so however, its leaders will need to move beyond their current anthropocentric immaturity.
It is now time the EU took seriously a core value declared by Article 13 of the Treaty for the Functioning of the EU which provides:
"In formulating and implementing the Union's agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage."
They might begin doing so by removing the anthropocentric caveat enshrined at the end of Article 13 and by adopting the stance taken by Denmark recently - namely, "Animal welfare takes precedence over religion". It should also take precedence over profit, economic efficiency and traditional cultural practices!
For many EU citizens, animal welfare is a profoundly important issue. (I would include myself amongst their number). Indeed - the way animals are treated is so central to the identity of some people that it must be accepted that it engages ECHR Article 9 rights - namely it impacts on the fundamental freedoms of "thought, conscience and religion". This may sound like a fanciful proposition - but the educationalist Howard Gardner specifically identified "naturalistic intelligence" as one of nine "multiple intelligences" inherent in the human condition. To see animal suffering is profoundly and viscerally upsetting to many people, and living in an EU which facilitates such suffering is a license to create antipathy toward the very institution which has as a core value the wellbeing of animals!
Having a connection with, and deep respect (even reverence) for nature and animals has been evident within humanity for thousands of years and has been apparent since the dawn of our species. After all, humans are no more than animals and so an empathy with other sentient beings is unremarkable given our interdependence. It is now time such values were not only enshrined in law - but that active and visible steps were taken to move us from a point of rhetoric to a point of effective action.
The EU has been accused of suffering from a "democratic deficit". In relation to influencing animal welfare policy making - I concur with the charge.
Take for example the issue of labelling meat produced by ritual slaughter. All Shechita and some Halal meat is produced under an exemption from the requirement for prior-stunning before slaughter. For many people this is an abhorrent practice and it creates a conflict with their "conscience". Yet the EU has been reluctant or incapable of taking the lead by encouraging its member states to end the practice, or at the very least to insist on the labelling of meat produced in this fashion. Instead it hides behind the shield that the issue is outside its "competence". In my view, this is a poor excuse and indicates the moral leadership of the EU is deficient as well as its democratic processes.
Since this method of slaughter has been repeatedly shown to be inhumane (even the veterinary authorities of the EU itself opine as much) - why is the meat not labelled transparently? How does the EU justify putting the religious conscience of a minority above the secular conscience of the majority who want to reduce and eliminate animal cruelty? What purpose does a Charter of Fundamental Rights really serve if the rights of the majority of its citizens are ignored?
Even when the EU has some authority to intervene in matters which do not fall entirely within the competence of member states - it appears reluctant to do so.
The current policy in Romania of "Catch & Kill" which has been adopted to control rabies provides a good example.
Romania has adopted a methodological approach for controlling rabies which includes inter alia the practice of rounding-up stray dogs and killing them. This practice has been shown to fall short of internationally recognised best practice. Yet, despite this - Romania is being supported to do so by the EU. Clearly the prevention of the spread of rabies is desirable not only from a human health perspective but also from an animal welfare perspective. However a recent piece of research provided by two lawyers from Finland has concluded that the EU subsidy which supports Romania's rabies eradication programme is not only contrary to the values of the EU but is also illegal because the methodology does not accord with known best practice. Furthermore, according to the same research, the burden of proof is on the European Commission when it assumes that EU subsidies under other programmes are not flowing into Romania’s large-scale dog culling business.
Returning to my general thesis concerning the inadequate animal welfare practices prevailing within the EU - the Romanian dog cull is yet another example which exposes the reality of the EU for many animals - namely as a trans-national institution out of touch with the aspirations and values of its own citizens concerning the animals that live there. In addition to the self-evident deficiencies in animal welfare practices - the EU is not aligned in practice even with its own core values and as an unaccountable giant-"quango" is disturbingly at liberty to spend tax-payers money in a potentially unlawful and ineffective way! Is there any hope for the future of the EU?
In May 2014, the EU elections are taking place. The Euro-Group for animals has been working hard to raise awareness of animal welfare deficiencies within the EU in the minds of voters to encourage them to lobby MEPs and prospective candidates to adopt a pro-active and supportive stance on this important issue. I predict this will become an increasingly important issue in future as the "online generation" of socially-networked and more compassionate young people become eligible to shape and influence future EU policy. It would make sense for future EU leaders to bear this in mind and to be one step ahead.
The Commission website states :
"Anyone may lodge a complaint with the Commission against a Member State for any measure (law, regulation or administrative action) or practice attributable to a Member State which they consider incompatible with a provision or a principle of EU law."
Yes - that's all very well and good - but do they take complaints seriously? The Romanian dog cull will make for a good test case. Is the cull being rendered possible because of a lack of moral leadership or a democratic deficit? - let's wait and see!
It is now time we had an EU Director General for Animal Welfare. At this time, animal welfare comes under the remit of the Directorate-General for Health and Consumers. As the name suggests, this is an anthropocentric and commercially focussed body which treats animals as no more than resources for exploitation for the benefits of humanity. We now need an official at the top-table whose only remit is to fight for the interests of animals within the EU and to raise such issues on an international level. If the EU wants to remain relevant to its citizens, such an appointment is not only urgently needed on moral grounds, but it would also be popular with the voters.
We live on a small planet which we share with another million or so species. Our very existence depends on the healthy functioning of the systems in place and our very humanity is contingent and conditional on how we treat those who are weaker than ourselves.
“The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
(Jeremy Bentham, 1789)
Finally - in reality having worked with people on the continent who are as passionate and committed to animal welfare as any Brit, I don't think we are that different. But since the EU is all about making rules for selling bananas and cuckoo-clocks and forcing unfettered immigration on us (that is how the British press presents the EU!) - if it broadened its remit to tackling some social and moral issues that the majority of its citizens cared about - rather than what the business community and politicians cared about - then perhaps it would not be so easy to lazily brand the EU as suffering from democratic and moral deficits.
My hope now is that a new generation of EU leaders will come forward and look at what really matters to the 500 million EU citizens - animal welfare would certainly command some support!
They should start by immediately withdrawing funding from Romania to the extent subsidies, directly or indirectly, are supporting Romania’s large-scale dog-culling business - then this should be widely publicised for effect and impact!
About the Author
Dr Peter Bowen-Walker BSc (Hons) MEd PGCE PhD (FSBiol CBiol FCollT) (UK), is a biological scientist and lecturer and is currently reading law. He has a particular interest in the environment and habitat protection and is working towards a career in animal welfare law. He is a member of the Association of Lawyers for Animal Welfare, the Lawyers' Secular Society and the RSPCA.