The EU referendum and animal welfare

The European Flag

The government will hold a Referendum on June 23 on whether the UK wishes to remain part of the European Union.

The RSPCA is neutral and is not campaigning on this issue but we would like to share the facts about animal welfare in the EU for our supporters , so you can make an informed choice.

What EU laws cover

Around 80 percent of UK animal welfare laws originate from the EU with legislation limited to issues affecting the operation of the internal market and the free movement of animals.

So the EU:

  • Sets standards on farm animals such as standards on how animals are slaughtered and transported and on the farming conditions for meat chickens, laying hens and pigs.
  • Agrees consumer information laws such as making method of production labelling compulsory on egg boxes e.g. eggs from hens kept in enriched battery cages, must be labelled ‘Eggs from caged hens’.
  • Has wildlife laws protecting wild birds such as preventing the capture and killing of some species and on the keeping of animals in zoos, EU law requires all zoos to be inspected and licensed.
  • Regulates the use of animals in research with six different laws which includes a ban on the testing, marketing and import of cosmetic products tested on animals.

However the area where the RSPCA does a lot of its work, companion animals, is the least regulated area by the EU. Laws are limited to rules allowing free movement of dogs and cats provided they have been identified and vaccinated, so removing the need for quarantine in the UK and when taking our pets abroad.

How animal welfare laws differ across the UK

Any issues which do not impact on the effective operation of the internal market are devolved to individual Member States.

Pig indoors - raised under the Freedom Food schemeLegislation on animal cruelty is set individually in the four UK countries such as the Animal Welfare Act 2006, in England and Wales which covers the prevention of cruelty and suffering to animals. As legislation on companion animal welfare is mainly devolved, standard setting is decided in the different Parliaments and Assemblies. For instance the use of shock collars is banned in Wales but nowhere else.

The different jurisdictions also set different sentencing thresholds from five years in Northern Ireland compared to six months in England. Other areas where the UK is free to set legislation include the hunting of wild animals by dogs and the welfare of wild animals in travelling circuses.

By remaining in the EU, the UK can:

  • Influence the European Commission and the 27 other EU members to introduce further animal welfare legislation that is currently lacking such as harmonised standards for dairy cows or new rules on duck farming. These would have the potential to improve animal welfare standards across Europe.
  • Influence the European Commission to negotiate and agree Free Trade Agreements (FTA) with other countries which have the potential to improve animal welfare there and reduce the threat of importing products into the UK that are produced to lower welfare standards. This has the potential to minimise the threat from those products undermining our own farming products.
  • Continue to use farm subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy which have the potential to help British farmers improve animal welfare standards.
  • Continue to set our own standards in those areas that are not covered by the EU e.g. hunting with dogs, fur farming.
  • Influence any future standards on animals that the EU is introducing; this will harmonise standards in the 27 other EU countries and have the potential to keep UK farming and industry competitive.

David Bowles © RSPCAThe approach the government will adopt on many of these issues will not be confirmed until a vote to leave the EU has occurred so what follows is necessarily speculation but by leaving the EU, the UK would have the potential to:

  • Adopt its own laws and standards on animal welfare which might be better than the EU standards.
  • Agree and implement a new system of farm subsidies to improve animal welfare which might provide more money than is given now to farmers.
  • Negotiate a new trade agreement with the EU (depending on what model of relationship with the EU the UK has adopted, the UK might be able to ignore future or existing new laws on animal welfare; if the UK decides to adopt the model based on the European Economic Area, this ability will be more restricted.
  • Negotiate new free trade agreements (FTAs) with other countries in the world which might achieve better terms for animal welfare than the present FTAs negotiated by the EU.
  • Prevent imports of certain animals provided that these represent a disease or welfare risk (such as the trade in puppies from the EU) and did not contravene the World Trade Organisation rules.

For more information, please download and read our full briefing.

We hope this information is helpful in sharing what EU membership means for animal welfare. It is now up to you to decide how you wish to vote in the upcoming referendum.

- David Bowles
Head Public Affairs

10 Responses to “The EU referendum and animal welfare”


    Do not agree we are better out of animals travel great distances across europe..eastern europe has some very dubious abotoirs and operators..

  • Inogen Mackenzie

    You mention ‘UK farming and industry’ remaining competitive – are you talking about vegetables here? Surely our largest and most respected animal welfare organisation is not supporting the killing of animals and the consumption of dead bodies? Yes, we must have worldwide adoption of the highest possible standards of care for ‘farm’ animals (nasty term), but that is only while the world adjusts to a vegan diet – that must always be our longer term aim. We cannot sustain this intensive use of resources and we cannot carry on with the cruelty. Come on RSPCA, take your own argument to its logical conclusion, please.
    Of course, you may be deliberately concealing the part about a vegan diet, so as not to shock people too quickly – I do hope that that’s what it is.

  • julia waller

    I want out of the EU mainly because politicians have always said to me that live animal exports could be banned from Britain if we had control of our own laws – as a majority of British people want this trade banned our MPs would have to listen to the UK people.

  • Rosemary Goddard Svendsen

    I’m glad that you set this out, so that people can see how animal welfare is affected by the EU. However, I beg to differ with you concerning the possibility that more Money might be made available for farm animal welfare improvements if the UK left the EU. I suspect it’s more likely that welfare subsidies would be cut, particularly given the economic dislocation likely as the results of an “out” vote begin to be felt.

  • Lynne Stumbles

    Thankyou so much for this information. Useful details have been quite hard to find. I hadn’t yet heard any mention of the effect of “Brexit” on the welfare of animals during any of the recent discussion about the referendum.

  • Anne Green

    Just received a reply on the petition I signed which was sent with thousands of others to the House of Commons with regard to using wild animals in circus’s. I feel as always that they just wash over the subject, only two travelling circus’s were licensed under the Defra regulations 2012. The licensing scheme will stay in place until a ban comes into place, therefore this just doesn’t protect these animals very much by the signing of such a paper. Although it has been said that Defra keeps an eye on these animals it just doesn.t seem enough for the Government to say “there may not be enough parliamentary time” what a joke when they all sit there either yawning or nodding off. Anyway just had to rant off about this as I have a strong apathy towards all animals and shall keep signing these petitions. Yours faithfully, Anne Green.

  • Doreen McCormack

    A good informative read. Thank you. I support Compassion in World Farming and the welfare of all animals is important to me.
    Many rules which in the past the EU has introduced, such as “caged hens” have been ignored by many EU countries.
    I have very strong feelings relating to the transport of live animals over long distances. I live in Kent where animals are taken across the Channel to then travel long distances to their destination. If the UK leaves the EU will the UK government have more powers on this issue.


    I saw a documentary a few months ago about illegal importing of puppies in poor condition , leaving their mothers too early etc, and it also mentioned that some puppy farms are subsidised with £millions. Having control of our own laws should end or reduce this.Surely this should outweigh the decision for the RSPCA to sit on the fence and support the LEAVE campaign.While there may be some things the EU has implemented that are good , there is no reason to believe these would be stopped if we came out!

  • Emma Shibli

    This is really useful as I want to decide how to vote on 23 June based on animal – particularly farm animal – welfare, habitat protection and the environment. It’s not just about how Europe affects us but about how much we can influence animal well-being across the EU so I really welcome some debate on this.

  • Wendy Dowse

    I don’t agree that this government would make animal welfare more of a priority issue. As things stand at present they could ban animals in circuses and I have written to my MP on several occasions about this. However, I always get a bland reply and nothing has been done, so how can any animal welfare issue be important to this government? Also, farm animals will still be transported to Europe because farmers will still sell them and, rather than sending carcasses in fridges, they will send live creatures in appalling conditions. Europeans eat horse meat and unwanted horses are also sent across Europe without rest, food or water rather than slaughtering them here in ‘relatively’ humane conditions and sending the meat.
    Illegal importation of puppies would still continue because those who are supposed to check animals at the port of entry don’t do their jobs properly. Whether this is due to shortage of staff or uncaring individuals who just want to get to the end of their shift and go home, the puppies get through with a great deal of suffering both to them and to those who buy them in many cases. This will not stop if the UK leaves Europe because it is an illegal and lucrative trade that could be stopped right now if the government had any interest in animal welfare.

  • Comments are closed.

    Back to blog...