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Thinking about Europe

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CITS title is unlikely to make a front page headline in The Sun and may need some explaining. Nevertheless, a recent document from Defra and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) calling for evidence on ‘The balance of competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union’ is of interest – and not just because, with continuing concern about the Eurozone crisis and arguments about budgets, coupled with an underlying fear of relinquishing sovereign powers to some faceless federal authority in Brussels, the level of enthusiasm for the EU in Britain could currently be described as low. The call for evidence specifically relates to animal health, animal welfare and food safety (see p 580 of this issue). It forms part of a government-wide review, being coordinated by the Foreign Office, which aims 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’. It might also be seen as an audit of the pros and cons of EU membership. Essentially, it seeks to clarify the extent to which laws made in Brussels determine what happens in the UK, and whether this is desirable.

European legislation impinges on most aspects of life in Britain but it probably impinges more in the areas of animal health, animal welfare and food safety than in most others. To apply the (slightly absurd) jargon employed in the Government's review, these are areas in which the EU has a great deal of competence, and the UK, along with the other EU member states, does not. This is largely for historical reasons relating to the importance attached to agriculture when the EU was founded, the continuing importance of agriculture to the development of the single European market and a related desire to protect both animal and human health, which has been reinforced over the years by various animal disease outbreaks and food scares. For all the bluster at Westminster, it is in Brussels that the real decisions on these issues are made, with much of the activity at Westminster and in Whitehall being devoted to deciding how to translate those decisions into UK law. This is clearly reflected in a 12-page document accompanying the call for evidence, which lists a whole raft of EU laws relating to food safety and animal health and welfare. These include directives covering matters ranging from the notification and control of animal diseases to veterinary checks at borders, and from veterinary medicines to the protection of animals on farms, during transport and at the time of slaughter.

The call for evidence asks some pretty fundamental questions, including ‘What evidence is there that EU action on animal health and welfare benefits or disadvantages the UK?, ‘How might the national interest be served by action on animal health and welfare being taken, eg, at regional or national level, in addition to or as an alternative to action at EU level?’ and ‘How might the UK benefit from the EU taking more or less action on animal health and welfare in future?’. It also asks, equally bluntly, ‘Does EU legislation on animal health and welfare provide the right balance between protecting animal and public health and the interests of UK businesses?’. EU legislation has played such a significant role in relation to veterinary activity in these areas for so many years now that answering those questions will not be easy. As the call for evidence points out, in what could well be the understatement of the year, ‘maintaining a strong internal market, while allowing sufficient national and local choice on issues such as how to deal with risk, creates some challenges and tensions’. There have been, and continue to be, numerous examples of such challenges and tensions, whether in relation to veterinary medicines, animal identification or pet travel, as well as concerns about the legislative compromises that have to be reached and the extent to which rules are implemented across the EU. It is easy to rail against ‘legislative diktats’ from Brussels, in some cases apparently with good reason, but would, say, BSE in the 1990s and foot-and-mouth disease in 2001 have been better handled if EU legislation wasn't there? And given the extent to which animals and their products are moved around the EU, would animal and public health be better protected without EU-wide controls?

The European Commission is itself in the process of reviewing legislation on animal health, with a view to coming up with proposals for a new, consolidated Animal Health Law in 2013. It is not altogether clear whether the purpose of Defra and the FSA's call for evidence is that the results should contribute to negotiations on the Commission's proposals but, if it is, they are cutting things a bit fine. The Commission's proposal is expected in spring 2013, while Defra and the FSA have asked for evidence to be submitted by the end of February. If there is one thing that has become clear about EU legislation over the years it is that it is better to try to exert influence early on in its development, rather than try to change things at the last minute.

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