With the EU elections this week, we are witnessing a plethora of references to animals in speeches and political debates.
Making commitments to the electorate always comes easy before key election dates. History though shows that voters better take such promises with a grain of salt. During the 2014-2019 term, many MEPs voted against files that would improve animal welfare, despite pre-election promises and despite their participation in working groups to advance animal welfare, such as the European Parliament’s Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals.
Ahead of elections, candidates promise their constituents the stars. In the case of animal welfare, it seems that everyone’s onboard. After all, increased citizen awareness and interest on the issue have not gone unnoticed. ‘Animal welfare’ happens to be another popular word embraced by opposite ends of the spectrum, drawing support from all sides. And, understandably so.
In recent years, the number of people who identify themselves as friends of the animals has risen, animal welfare organisations have sprung up in all member states and the animal advocacy movement has been a strong force in driving social change at a global scale.
In the EU in particular, the 2016 Eurobarometer on the Attitudes of Europeans towards Animal Welfare confirmed that 94% of Europeans believe it is important to protect the welfare of farmed animals and the more recent Future of Europe interim report of the consultation on future priorities of the EU established citizens’ expectations that animal welfare should be one of the top EU priorities.
Besides politicians, political groups at national and EU level embrace the issue, occasionally including it in their list of priorities. Nevertheless, they shy away from calling for the adoption of substantive reforms that would address long-standing problems. Rather, many political manifestos can best be described as superficial and limited attempts to express support for animal-friendly policies.
Regardless of pre-election rhetoric on animal welfare, post-election practices indicate a different story. While sometimes politicians will take a stand against animal welfare abuses in faraway lands, i.e. China, when criticism hits home, many refrain from voicing concerns. This is clearly demonstrated during voting at both Committee level and Plenary over the current legislative period.
For example: One out of eight MEPs from the Intergroup on Animal Welfare “the focal point for animal welfare in the European Parliament… open to all MEPs that are eager to debate and promote this policy issue” voted against an amendment calling for legislation to improve the welfare of farmed rabbits, animals who spend nearly all their lives imprisoned in cages. Fortunately, the Parliament didn’t listen to them and called on the EU Commission to present a legislative proposal establishing minimum standards for farmed rabbits.
More recently, in February 2019 many MEPs in the Environment Committee called for no EU money to subsidize farms that exceed a certain stocking density of animals per hectare. The report was approved by the Committee. One third of the MEPs who voted against were also Animal Welfare Intergroup members.
In April, during the Agriculture Committee vote on the Common Agricultural Policy, the voting record demonstrates that one third of the MEPs who voted to continue spending EU taxpayers’ money on intensively reared animals were members of the Animal Welfare Intergroup.
Fortunately, some politicians care about animal welfare before and after the elections. Some have been particularly active in pursuing higher animal welfare standards across the EU. Many have pledged to work for farm animals in the coming term, having done so during the past five years by influencing decision-making and playing a key role in support of animals. A number of them have been true heroes.
The upcoming elections present an opportunity to learn more about the role of the European Parliament and the EU Institutions in general, and how they affect our lives. NGOs and citizens ought to take an interest in how their elected representatives perform in the European Parliament or even national parliaments as regards to the welfare of animals. It is in our power to elect politicians who deliver on animal welfare. Our elected representatives should be held accountable for their decisions at EU level.
Nowadays, various communication tools enable us to stay close to democratic political processes, by following the work of politicians and by tracking their voting record. And, this is exactly what we plan to do in the next Parliament. We will follow the work of all MEPs to ensure they deliver on their promises.
We, citizens, should stay informed and take a more active role in the decision-making process. We should express our views on the outcomes of votes and encourage supportive proposals for animal welfare that will eventually turn into real policies, thereby having a direct influence on the course the European Union takes in the treatment of animals.
The EU elections are not enough to ensure democracy. Informed citizens can play a key role in monitoring the developments after the elections. Let’s not be passive spectators to the decisions of those we elect. We can and should engage constructively in the upcoming period.
By Olga Kikou