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Europe and the law

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THE title was a bit obscure, as, indeed, was the ultimate purpose of the exercise. Nevertheless, a consultation launched by Defra and the Food Standards Agency (FSA)towards the end of last year raised some interesting questions about Britain's legal relationship with the rest of the EU regarding animal health, animal welfare and food safety. Called ‘The balance of competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union’, the consultation forms part of a wider government review, being coordinated by the Foreign Office, to ‘deepen public and Parliamentary understanding of our EU membership and provide a constructive and serious contribution to the national and wider European debate about modernising, reforming and improving the EU in the face of collective challenges’. Essentially, the review seeks to clarify the extent to which laws made in Brussels determine what happens in the UK and how far this is desirable – although given the nature of much of the political debate in Britain of late, it might equally be interpreted as an audit of the pros and cons of EU membership (VR, December 8, 2012, vol 171, p 576).

There is no doubt that, in the fields of animal health, animal welfare and food safety, European legislation has had, and continues to have, a significant impact. This is largely because of the importance attached to agriculture when the EU was founded, and the need to be able to trade animals and their products safely in the single market while ensuring that consumers are protected. The BVA has now responded to Defra and the FSA's call for evidence, and many of its comments reflect this.

In general terms, the BVA supports an agreed, consistent and consistently applied framework for animal health, animal welfare and food safety standards across the EU, and notes that a legislative framework is needed to ensure that minimum standards are set with the goal of ensuring consistent compliance. It makes the important point that poor enforcement or implementation of EU legislation should not be confused with poor law making. It also suggests that, if there is to be a level playing field in enforcement across Europe, public services, including state veterinary services, need to be strengthened, not eroded, as is currently happening in the UK.

It notes that the UK has played a full part in negotiating EU laws and suggests that, for the most part, the ‘balance of competences’ is right. It further notes that, if the UK were to act unilaterally with regard to laws on animal health and welfare, it would run the risk of disadvantaging producers. At the same time, it points out, the precautionary principle should only be invoked on the basis of a clear risk-based strategy, and there should be no ‘gold-plating’ by the UK government. It suggests that the Government should seek specific examples of inconsistent interpretation from industry groups, which are in a position to compare how legislation is implemented across the wider EU market.

Discussing prevention and control of animal diseases, it notes that a consistent and joined-up approach across the EU strengthens control measures and surveillance. However, referring to the UK foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2007, it argues that care must be taken to ensure that surveillance requirements are risk-based and proportionate. It notes that clear mechanisms are in place for EU member states to improve their animal health status by controlling or eradicating exotic diseases, but suggests that, for endemic diseases, member states should have more flexibility in attempting to eradicate diseases within their boundaries.

Regarding pet travel, it identifies a number of areas where the UK should be able either to take or increase action at the national level, suggesting that animal welfare is currently being compromised due to the biosecurity risk and the ease with which litters of puppies can be smuggled into the UK. On veterinary medicines, it says that, while it would be encouraged to see centralisation of the authorisation process (to help increase the availability of products), it would be concerned by the imposition of a system of prescribing and dispensing that was alien to veterinary practice in the UK.

European legislation has been such an important and integral part of animal health activity in the UK for so long now that it would be difficult to imagine what life would be like without it. Also, given the need for a safe and level playing field, and the international nature of trade and many diseases, it would be hard to argue that it is not necessary. Clearly, there is room for more flexibility in some areas. However, if there is one thing that has been learned over the years it is that effort must be devoted to ensuring consistent enforcement and that, when new legislation is being drafted, it is important to be in a position to be able to influence the outcome at an early stage.

▪ The BVA's response to Defra and the FSA's consultation is available at www.bva.co.uk/Consultations/Documents/BVA-response-to-Defra-consultation-on-Eu-Competences.pdf

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