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The British Medical Association has officially adopted a policy of ‘opposition to Brexit’ and is calling for a second referendum. Whatever vets might think personally about Brexit, they are yet to adopt any collective stance.
There is an understandable reluctance on the part of the veterinary establishment to get too deeply embroiled in politics, yet many questions thrown up by Brexit have a veterinary perspective that cannot easily be shirked, and nowhere is this more evident than in the vexed case of the Irish border.
Movements across this line have become progressively seamless in recent decades, due in no small part to the fact that both the UK and Ireland are members of the EU, which holds free movement as one of its central tenets.
Increasingly, free movement has applied to pets, as well as to the traditional quartet of goods, capital, services and labour. EU pet travel rules were harmonised six years ago, removing previous entitlements that the UK could diverge from other member states in areas like rabies control. This means the UK is not currently free to decide for itself whether to enforce a different and more rigorous set of rules.
This straightjacket will fall off after Brexit, when the UK will gain more freedom to adopt policies like extending the time dogs must wait before they can travel following a rabies vaccination – something the BVA has called for (see VR, 1 September, 2018, vol 183, pp 244-245).
But as one straightjacket falls off, another will be applied. Taking back control of pet travel will bring with it fresh quandaries including the question of where the new rules should be enforced. In theory this is an easy question to answer – the new rules should be enforced at the UK border. However, in practice the ambiguous nature of the situation on the island of Ireland makes this problematic.
The pet travel quandary is a microcosm of the Brexit conundrum, of which Ireland lies at the heart
Applying the same veterinary rules of entry across the UK would necessitate the creation of inspection posts at points along the 310-mile border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Animals would have to be funnelled through these pinch points to be checked. That would run counter to the UK’s declarations about wishing to avoid a hard border. Thus, the pet travel quandary is a microcosm of the Brexit conundrum, of which the Irish question lies at the heart.
Pet travel might be thought of as a niche issue. After all, both the Republic of Ireland and the UK are free of rabies and have similar disease statuses. However, if the UK’s pet travel rules are not to be enforced at the UK border by a UK government agency – as the BVA has suggested they should be – then, by default, the Republic of Ireland becomes a gateway to the UK. If there are no inspection posts at the Northern Ireland border and none internally in the UK, then entry points into the Republic of Ireland will necessarily become entry points into Great Britain.
Puppy smugglers would be able to use ferries linking France and Spain with the Republic of Ireland as an effective ‘backdoor’ into the UK.
This is just one of several Brexit- and Ireland-related veterinary issues that need to be addressed. Another is dual labelling. As the BVA explained in its submission to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the UK’s exit from the EU veterinary medicines approval system means the market for English language labelling within the EU will shrink, and this could have a knock-on effect for those EU countries that heavily rely on licensing and packaging with the UK. The Republic Ireland is one of them.
Brexit is often talked of as a high stakes game for the UK, but the stakes are arguably just as high for Ireland. There should be every mutual incentive for pragmatic dealmaking. Whether politics permits that is another matter.
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