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The referendum and reality

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THERE is something almost surreal about the way the debate on whether the UK should stay in or leave the EU is being conducted. After years during which the British public and the national press appear to have taken very little interest in what actually goes on in Brussels, except, perhaps, when accounts can be enlivened by tales of arguments about whether bananas should be bent or straight, everyone is suddenly being asked to turn on and tune in to the subject, and decide whether to stay in or drop out. The call now is for ‘non-partisan facts’ but, after years of relative apathy, these are in short supply and are likely to remain so in the run up to the referendum. What we are left with instead are reports of high-profile proponents on one side of the debate expressing views which are immediately dismissed as nonsense by those on the other. All this is said to constitute journalistic balance but, in the absence of solid information on which to assess the value of what is being said, it is not particularly helpful and not really balanced at all.

Vets, like everyone else, will have their own personal views on the subject, but what might a British exit from the EU mean in veterinary professional terms? The EU – and EU legislation – has been integral to veterinary activity in the UK for so long now that it is difficult to imagine life without it. This is mainly because of the importance attached to agriculture when the EU was founded, and recognition of the need to be able to trade animals and their products safely in the single market. As a result of this, the decision on whether or not to leave will inevitably have an impact on many aspects of veterinary endeavour, whether in relation to farm and companion animal health and welfare, food safety and public health, or veterinary education and research. With the number of overseas graduates registered by the RCVS last year exceeding the number of UK graduates, and many of those graduates having qualified elsewhere in Europe, it could also affect veterinary employment, whether in private practice or in the public health and higher education sectors.

In a recent letter in Veterinary Record, Paul Torgerson, a British-trained vet working at the University of Zurich, asked the RCVS to clarify the implications of a possible Brexit on the mutual recognition of EU veterinary qualifications (VR, March 19, 2016, vol 178, p 298). The question is pertinent because of the substantial number of vets working in the UK who obtained their qualifications in continental Europe and because of concerns in the UK about a shortage of ‘experienced vets’. Also, mutual recognition currently works both ways. In response, the RCVS pointed out that, at this stage, there was no clear answer, as the outcome would depend on the Government's position and the result of subsequent negotiations. However, it suggested that, in the short term, it was unlikely that existing registrants would have their registration revoked as a result of the UK withdrawing from the EU, although this might affect new applications (VR, April 9, 2016, vol 178, p 377).

Regarding agriculture, the NFU has come out in favour of remaining in the EU, as have a number of other farming organisations. At Defra, underlining the surreal nature of what is happening, George Eustice, the minister for farming and animal health, is backing the ‘out’ campaign, while his boss, Liz Truss, the Secretary of State at Defra, is very much in favour of staying in.

With regard to higher education and research, more than 100 university vice-chancellors and principals highlighted the value of continued EU membership in a letter published in the Sunday Times in February. Similarly, in a letter to The Times in March, 150 Fellows of the Royal Society, including physicist Stephen Hawking, warned that leaving the EU would be a ‘disaster for UK science’. That said, it has to be reported that, as might be expected, not all academics and scientists agree.

As far as animal health and welfare are concerned, so much activity is bound up by EU legislation that it is impossible to be sure what might happen in the event of a Brexit. However, given that Britain will presumably still want to trade with the rest of Europe, it seems likely that many of the existing rules, as well as any rules that might be developed in the future, would continue to apply. The complexity of the situation is illustrated by the new EU animal health law. This was recently agreed after several years in development and can be expected to provide the framework for disease prevention and control in Europe for many years to come, covering issues ranging from animal disease research and surveillance, to biosecurity and veterinary involvement on farms (VR, June 13, 2015, vol 176, p 608; January 23, 2016, vol 178, p 78). A similar situation applies in the case of rules that are being developed on veterinary medicines, as well as rules on official controls. Some might suggest that it might be possible for Britain to go it alone in these areas but, with disease tending not to respect national boundaries, and increasing internationalisation of trade, that could be risky, and by no means as simple as it might sound.

A few years ago, when debate about the EU was marginally less heated than it is now, Defra and the Food Standards Agency held a consultation on ‘the balance of competences’ between the UK and the EU on legislation regarding animal health and welfare and food safety. Part of a wider Government review coordinated by the Foreign Office, the aim was to assess how EU legislation affects the UK – essentially, it was an audit of the pros and cons of EU membership. Responding to the consultation in 2013, the BVA suggested that there was room for improvement in implementation and enforcement of the relevant legislation but that, overall, the balance was about right (VR, March 30, 2013, vol 172, p 322). Apparently it was not alone in this. A Government summary published later in the year indicated that the views expressed by the 60 or so organisations that responded to the consultation were, on the whole, similarly positive (VR, August 3, 2013, vol 173, p 102).

At a BVA Council meeting last week, members decided that the Association should not take a formal position on EU membership as the referendum approaches, but that it should seek to facilitate debate within the profession. It does seem important that that debate is had. Discussions about Brexit may have taken on a surreal quality in terms of national politics. However, as far as the work of the veterinary profession and animal health and welfare are concerned, the consequences of the outcome of the referendum on June 23 could be all too very real.

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