Animal welfare is set to become an increasingly important priority in the EU’s free trade agreements with major meat exporters such as South America, Mexico and, soon, Australia and New Zealand.
Ever since the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 introduced the notion in EU fundamental law that animals are “sentient beings”, animal welfare has climbed in importance in the EU’s regulatory agenda. It is also slowly creeping into EU trade agreements.
Convergence of interests
A convergence of interests between EU animal welfare groups and EU meat producers means trading partners will face growing demands in that area going forward. Animal welfare policy covers disease prevention and veterinary treatment of animals, the conditions of their shelter, nutrition and general humane handling and slaughter of animals.
In a paper circulated to agriculture ministries on the state of play in current free trade negotiations in early November, the EU listed animal welfare as an “offensive interest” in its negotiations with the South American bloc Mercosur and with Mexico, both significant exporters of meat products (see extract below).
The EU Japan Economic Partnership Agreement that is currently in the final stages of negotiations is also expected to include animal welfare provisions.
In the ongoing Mexico talks – which involve updating an existing trade agreement – “we have made good progress towards an agreement that would recognise that animals are sentient beings and would call for improving implementation of OIE [the world organisation for animal health] standards”, EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström said during a meeting in the European Parliament last month.
The negotiation mandate the EU is requesting from member states for the trade deal with Australia includes a dedicated paragraph on animal welfare: “the Agreement should promote continued cooperation and exchanges on animal welfare, to discuss, inter alia, possible commitments on equivalence on animal welfare between the parties”, the text reads.
EU neighbours signing on to deep and comprehensive free trade agreements such as the one with Ukraine that has been in force since 2016 are required to apply EU animal welfare rules.
Political pressure has increased on the European Commission to step up animal welfare provisions in trade agreements.
Brazil is the world’s biggest beef exporter. Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina, the other Mercosur members, are the 7th, 8th and 12th largest exporters respectively.
The EU is slated to start negotiations with Australia, the world’s No. 3 beef exporter, enjoying more than 14 percent global market share. New Zealand is the world’s fifth-largest beef exporter.
Animal welfare rules in FTAs also are set apply to all types of animal husbandry, not only beef. Cross-border trade covered by any future animal welfare provisions in an FTA would include poultry, eggs or lamb and mutton.
The parliament is also pushing in the direction of teasing EU trading partners into applying animal welfare standards that are close to the EU’s own, not least under the growing influence of non-governmental organisations.
In recent resolutions in support of the coming Australia and New Zealand trade negotiations, animal welfare provisions feature highly. “Animal welfare and health” are clearly pinned down as MEPs’ objectives for the Australia negotiations in these texts.
In the preamble to the parliament text regarding the New Zealand FTA, we read: “Given that the EU-New Zealand FTA will impact millions of farm animals, the commission must ensure that the parties undertake robust commitments to improve the welfare and protection of farm animals.”
The EU’s meat sector has been very vocal in opposing the trade negotiations with these countries for fear of being wiped out by the highly competitive trading partners. When the EU tabled a new 70,000-ton import quota extension to Mercosur in late September 2017, the head of the beef working party, Jean-Pierre Fleury in the farm group Copa Cogeca, said the move was “incomprehensible” in light of fraud recently unveiled in Brazil’s meat inspections.
“We have some of the highest food safety and animal welfare standards in the world and we cannot undermine these,” said Fleury.
The beef sector appears resigned to the fact that South Americans will receive bigger quotas as part of the deal under negotiation.
In return, Mercosur is also ready to adopt more stringent animal welfare rules, Borderlex understands. But Mercosur appears keen to apply EU standards replicating European regulations strictly. The EU also enforces ‘softer’ animal welfare rules through its Common Agricultural Policy, and namely its subsidies to farmers. The South American bloc now wants to be legally bound to these rules.
This is where the negotiations on beef will become tough. The European animal husbandry sector insists that the EU undertake more veterinary controls and audits itself instead of relying on certificates issued by the partners’ authorities. The Brazilian meat scandal that broke out in March 2017 gave EU producers ammunition in making their case heard.
Arnaud Petit, who heads trade-related activities at Copa Cogeca, also regrets that the EU’s approach to animal welfare in trade agreements so far is a soft one: “It is all centered on cooperation,” he says.
European Parliament and NGOs
Here, the agribusiness view appears to be converging with that of civil society groups.
The NGO Eurogroup for Animals, which represents a large number of animal welfare organisations from across Europe, is calling on the EU to become more assertive in spreading animal welfare norms via trade agreements.
The group supports calls from the parliament and other NGOs to make the EU’s ‘sustainable development’ chapters subject to dispute settlement and potential sanctions. The commission is not very keen to go down that path, but the pressure coming from the left-of-centre of the parliament is significant. With France recently endorsing the idea of making these chapters sanctionable, one cannot exclude that the commission’s policy evolves.
In a report released in October 2017, the NGO advocates targeted sanctions modelled on the EU’s measures aimed at tackling IUU – illegal, unreported and unregulated – fishing. Under the EU’s unilateral rules, foreign governments seen as condoning or not fighting such fishing are blacklisted and face an import ban.
Eurogroup for Animals also hopes that animal welfare will make it into the next version of the EU’s Trade For All strategy, which is now being updated.