The recent uproar over the ability of animals to feel pain has created a grossly inaccurate discussion. Beneath all the bluster and posturing from those claiming to be concerned by animal welfare was an underlying implication: without the EU, British animals would suffer horrific cruelty at the hands of a pig-hating, cattle-loathing domestic government.  

Of course such a belief borders on hysterical paranoia. Britons are a nation of animal lovers. We have a proud history of global leadership in the field of animal welfare. Removing ourselves from the inept EU presents us with an exciting opportunity to once again become a pioneer in improving animal welfare standards internationally. This can be done through trade deals and by discussions in international arenas. Despite the idyllic face given to this by many, the EU is guilty of holding back British ambitions for improved standards. In some cases the EU actively prevents us from taking action to improve animal conditions which could stop the unnecessary pain and suffering endured by animals.

Take, for instance, the matter of transporting livestock for slaughter across long distances. The images of cattle, sheep and pigs horrifically crammed into the back of lorries, suffering from severe health conditions, exhaustion and dehydration, rightly provokes outcry from the Great British Public. Parliament, when discussing the matter, finds itself in almost complete cross-party unanimity. There is a strong consensus for banning the barbaric export of live animals.

However, this robust current of objection – displaying our credentials as an animal loving nation – is in vain. Our membership of the EU and the principle of free movement reduces our concerns to irrelevance. The Treaties are clear. The free movement of goods – clearly also including animals which even the EU admits can feel pain – must not be impeded in any way.

Once we are outside the EU, any Bill advocating the end of this torture will be passed in a blink of an eye, but until then, nothing can be done! The disconnect between intentions and ability is mind-numbingly infuriating, especially as there is such a simple solution. However, this lays bare just one way in which the EU impedes Britain’s desire to reduce the suffering of animals.

Even where European legislation exists to prevent suffering, the protectionist fervour with which the agricultural sector is shielded means most breaches of welfare practice are overlooked. The EU Commission fails to enforce the rules in order to maintain and satisfy European farmers’ market advantage and competitiveness. The Commission also actively discourages the use of CCTV in abattoirs and opts to ignore laws maintaining the dignity of pregnant pigs. This allows those that fail to uphold even basic animal rights to continue, massively reducing their expenditure in the process in order to maximise profits.

The fact that British farmers consistently maintain high standards despite the rules not being enforced is therefore testament to their own credential as guarantors of animal well-being rather than the result of EU influence.

Law-abiding British farmers who take every effort and cost to minimise suffering for livestock are at a systemic disadvantage. They face competition with an influx of cheaply produced meat (mainly from eastern EU countries) – reared and slaughtered on a policy of minimum expenditure – with little thought for animal suffering. Once we are outside the EU, British farmers will not have to choose between maintaining high standards or market competitiveness, but they will be able to meet both requirements satisfactorily.

As we can see from Michael Gove’s enthusiastic tenure as Environment Secretary, British welfare standards are already on the rise. The draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill goes further than its EU equivalent, banning medieval practices (such as bullfighting in Spain and other EU countries), which are permitted by Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty on account of them being so-called ‘cultural traditions’. This, in addition to a toughening of prison sentences for the most serious offences, and moves to improve surveillance in slaughterhouses, shows a strong intent by Britain to make improvements where needed.

In the pet industry, moves are being made to clamp down on puppy smuggling and the illegal transportation of other domestic animals, which is facilitated by the EU’s ‘pet passport’ scheme: a problem which has, until now, remained out of Parliament’s jurisdiction. These proposals provide a small taste of post-EU Britain’s desire to go beyond European mediocrity.

Excitingly, once we are outside the Customs Union, the free-trading role Britain will craft for itself, once free of the EU’s stranglehold, will create a multitude of opportunities to engage with other countries. This will allow us to spread the values of animal welfare which are so important to us as a nation. By taking part in bilateral trade deals, British negotiators will be able to install minimum standards which must be met before produce can enter the United Kingdom. Not only will this ensure British consumers are protected from unethically reared meat, but will force nations seeking access to the UK market to meet our set standards of welfare.

Once we Get Britain Out of the EU, we will be in full control to pursue the highest possible standards of animal welfare. Free trade agreements will provide the perfect platform of interaction from which we can spread these values for animal welfare to other countries.