As I am writing this, Finnish government has just proposed a bill for the new animal welfare law. The current one is from the year 1996. That is a year when you couldn’t browse internet when your parents were talking on the landline phone and when I wanted to wear a neon colored crop top that stated “99 % angel”.
Let’s just say the world (and my taste in fashion) has changed a lot since then and so have the attitudes of the citizens. According to Eurobarometer couple years ago 90 percent of Finnish population expressed that they want better protection for farm animals. Ten years before only 67 percent thought the same.
The new animal welfare law has been in the making for seven years. So what does this long prepared new bill states? For example that a pig can still live half of her life in an anti-rotation cage. You can tie a dairy cow to a pole where she can’t even turn around. According to this new bill not all animals are guaranteed even to have a continuous access to drinking water. Feels like… year 1996.
Values vs. Interests
It is frustrating that while people’s attitudes towards animal welfare are changing the legislation is not following. When this is the situation in a country with 5,5 million people, I can’t imagine how it must be to try to change legislation in the European Union. So let’s ask a person who does just that.
I am standing in front of a white pretty building in Brussels next to a big park and ringing the doorbell. European Parliament and other EU’s glass and steel buildings are just a short walk away.
I am meeting with Francesca Porta, who works with animal protection at EU level. She is Farm Animals Programme Officer at Eurogroup for Animals, an organization working to improve the welfare of animals in the EU. It is one of the 11 000 organizations that are lobbying to get their voice heard among the EU decision makers. We get up the stairs of the old building with Francesca and sit next to a big office table of a conference room. Posters of animals on the wall remind who people here are working for.
“I think you always have to evaluate your expectations on the basis of the situation that you have in front. We can of course dream, but when you have to evaluate your job and your work you always have to consider the starting point”, Francesca says, when I ask how it is to work with issues that change very slowly, if even then.
The starting point is often far from the animal welfare point of view. 39 percent of the EU budget goes to agriculture, including factory farming. No surprise that lobbying on that side is strong.
“Behind the lobbying of the agricultural sector normally you have economical interest, and when you are from the environmental and animal welfare sector you have values. Normally is more difficult to make values count than interests.”
But it is not hopeless, Francesca assures.
“We are strong too. When you work with politics and politicians, you have to be conscious of the environment and the dynamics. It is good to have a vision, but this doesn’t mean that all the rest happening around doesn’t have any value. You have to see what you achieve as a building block.”
After all, even a small change for better can affect billions of animals in all the 28 member countries.
Waiting for the Political Opportunity
Farm animals are of course not the only ones affected by EU legislation. There are pets, research animals, wildlife and all the various issues that affect their well being. How to know what to campaign for right now? Especially when the state of animal welfare issues might vary between member countries.
Eurogroup for Animals has 64 member organization that work on the national level. Eurogroup monitors what happens on the national level and coordinates which subjects have the momentum at EU level right now.
“We have good relations with the commission and parliament, so we know what can be taken by the commission and we know what to work on. We have certain topics that are very important but are more silent, so we just monitor what is happening and we wait for the political opportunity to work on those”, Francesca says.
The same goes with who to lobby and how. On the list are both single MEPs and institutions.
“It is a puzzle. We have to put everything together and we have to go ahead doing everything because otherwise we miss one part and it is not working.”
One Million Signatures to Stop Long Distance Live Animal Transport
One of the main campaigns Francesca has worked with is Stop the Trucks, it’s goal being to end long distance live animal transport. Each year at least 1 billion poultry and 37 million cows, pigs, sheep, goats and equines are transported long distances within the EU and to other countries.
The campaign started in 2016, around the same time when Francesca started to work for Eurogroup for Animals. Despite all the work, including one million signatures in a petition to stop the long distance animal transport, no legislation revision has happened, at least yet.
“But I cannot say that I didn’t see anything. I saw what the political situation could have given me. I was getting what I was expecting to get”, Francesca says.
One achievement is also that the issue is not overlooked. Francesca believes that citizens’ opinions matter, even though it is not always so straight forward in politics.
“We believe that the pressure that comes from public is very important. It matters to sign petitions, because at a certain point the politicians can’t close their eyes on what citizens want. It keeps the debate alive.”
I have to admire the way Francesca seems not to be bummed out by the setbacks. Working for animal welfare at EU level requires certain personality, Francesca says. ”You have personalities that get stressed or disappointed about the fact they didn’t reach what they wanted in five years or didn’t get immediately the answer they expected to have from a council. Then you have the one that recharges the battery by the unsuccess they got and that is me.”
What Should Every EU Citizen Know?
There are many concepts and organization levels that Francesca mentions, that I have not heard before. The complexity of the decision making process makes it often hard to get a hold on what is happening at EU level for a person who is not working with these issues. So before I leave the conference room I ask one last question: what every citizen should know about the EU and animal welfare that they might be unaware of?
“There is kind of a public awareness but still it is good to go ahead in reminding this. If we keep the level of animal product consumption so high, we are going to destroy our planet. We are using more environmental resources compared to the resources the environment is able to generate.“
That is something you don’t need to be a politician to understand.
“If we want to have a higher animal welfare we cannot keep going with this high production system, we have to change the way we think the system. It is impossible to combine producing a lot and to respecting the welfare at the same.”
I hope not only the members of the European Parliament but also the politicians back in Finland would hear this message.
At the moment Eurogroup for Animals is working e.g. to stop piglet castration and tooth-clipping. Learn more and sign the petition here >>.
All photos in this post are by Jo-Anne McArthur, who travelled to Bulgaria-Turkey border in July 2018 to document the conditions of the live exports. Read Jo-Anne’s interview about what she saw here >>.