12 June 2017
Guest blog by Iyan I.H. Offor, Trade & Animal Welfare Project Officer at Eurogroup for Animals and David Bowles, Assistant Director, Public Affairs, RSPCA.
The Conservative Government has been quick to highlight the potential benefits and quick wins for animal welfare made possible by new UK trade competencies post-Brexit. However, experience with the reality of trade negotiations is making some animal welfare organisations more sceptical.
The UK has some of the highest standards in the world enacted under a legislative model. This is in contrast to the approach of the US and Canada, for example, which place reliance upon voluntary industry standards. Diverging welfare standards can result in increased imports of low-welfare products for two reasons. First, lower animal welfare standards are invariably linked to cheaper production which out-factors transport costs. Second, there are no effective mandatory product labelling mechanisms for animal welfare, except for shell eggs. Thus, although consumers express willingness to buy higher welfare products and to pay a premium for such products, they inadvertently purchase low welfare meat and dairy because the market does not operate transparently. This puts the livelihoods of British farmers who comply with animal welfare production requirements at risk.
As a current member of the Customs Union and the Single Market, the UK has freely accepted all imports of animal products from the EU which meet the same welfare requirements as those produced in the UK. This has resulted in significant trade in animal products between the UK and the EU amounting to over €16 billion in 2015 (higher than the EU’s trade in animal products with any other country). The importance of the EU’s trade with the UK differs from product to product.
If an EU-UK free trade agreement is not reached before 29 March 2019 or differs markedly from the current zero tariffs on agricultural products, the UK may increasingly source animal products from outside the EU which do not meet British farm welfare standards. Indeed, once the UK leaves the EU, it will be free to negotiate free trade deals (FTAs) with any country unconstrained by the EU’s negotiating stances.
The UK could avoid a race to the bottom by including provisions on animal welfare in FTAs. The EU achieved this in its FTAs with South Korea and Chile, allowing for technical assistance and cooperation to improve animal welfare. The Chile deal resulted in increased meat exports to the EU but also markedly improved slaughter standards in Chile. However, the EU has so far failed to require its trading partners to meet animal welfare standards equivalent to those of the EU as a pre-requisite to exporting their products to the EU.
The EU is often mandated by the member states to protect animal welfare in its trade deals. However, what is eventually agreed is inevitably scaled down due to trading partners’ priorities. Despite the EU’s motivation to protect animal welfare and its strong leverage as a gatekeeper to the European market, it is still incapable of effectively protecting animal welfare through trade deals.
Comparatively, the UK finds itself in a weaker negotiating position than the EU because its market is smaller. There will also be an urgent need to conclude trade deals if the UK loses its privileged access to the European market and those markets with which the EU has already negotiated FTAs.
The UK Government has stated that animal welfare should be a unique selling point for British products, that it will seek opportunities to improve standards without compromising this in trade negotiations, and that it will back British farming.  However, it may find it difficult to keep this promise when factoring this against the demands of third country negotiators as well as British manufacturing and economic interests.
The UK Government should approach this by considering the impact of all such decisions on British production and trade. Further, all decisions will need to be compliant with World Trade Organisation rules. Restricting trade in order to protect animal welfare is possible under WTO law, but requires careful legislation as well as strong political motivation to withstand any possible challenge before the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body.
In summary, can the UK Government ensure that its Rubik’s cube of negotiating asks is met? Is it possible to increase market access for exports and maintain high welfare standards for British farmers whilst ensuring low-welfare products do not enter the marketplace? Whilst this may appear to fall into the trap of having your cake and eating it, the UK has a number of options. It can ensure that taxpayers’ money spent on farm production aligns with and is focused on animal welfare outcomes, providing a level playing field for British farmers. It can ensure language on animal welfare equivalency is a red line in trade negotiations. It can encourage imports of products that meet animal welfare standards equivalent to UK standards, proving the UK’s non-protectionist credentials. Finally, it can look at ways of encouraging improvements to animal welfare, such as a prohibition on live exports of animals, without impacting on the sustainability of the industry or on trade opportunities. For Britain’s negotiators, who haven’t made a trade decision in over 40 years, it will certainly be an interesting if not challenging introduction to the world of trade negotiations.
 All data sourced from Eurostat. The aggregate of ‘animal products’ includes live animals, meat, fish, dairy, meat preparations, hides and skins, and wool.
 See Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, ‘What might Brexit mean for UK trade in agricultural products?’ (2016) http://www.ahdb.org.uk/documents/Horizon_Brexit_Analysis_Report-Oct2016.pdf accessed 15/05/16: Currently, 95% of British lamb and sheep exports go to the EU whilst 90% of lamb and sheep imports (representing a third of total meat consumed in Britain) came from outside the EU. Comparatively, more British poultry is exported outside the EU (23%) while only 14% of British poultry imports come from outside the EU
 Hansard 8 & 15 February 2017
 For an explanation regarding how trade can be restricted to protect animal welfare on the grounds of public morality, see Iyan I.H. Offor and Jan Walter, ‘GATT Article XX(a) Permits Otherwise Trade-Restrictive Animal Welfare Measures’ (2017) 12(4) GTCJ 158 <http://www.kluwerlawonline.com/abstract.php?area=Journals&id=GTCJ2017022>
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the University of Sussex or UK Trade Policy Observatory.