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LONDON — Britain is discovering that even outside the EU it’s not so easy to ban products after all.
Brexit meant the UK could choose to deviate from the standards imposed on member states from Brussels. But in an interconnected world, unbridled freedom does not exist.
Now Prime Minister Boris Johnson must tackle head-on the limitations of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which are making some of the Government’s animal welfare ambitions more difficult – or at least being used as an excuse to avoid to weaken the UK’s bargaining power in trade deals. So much for the famous Vote Leave slogan, “Take back control”.
“All WTO members would see themselves as pursuing their own independent trade policies, but they do so within a community of nations that have agreed to a certain set of ground rules,” said expert Nicolas Lockhart. in international trade law. “The WTO is over 165 members. You would really have to be alone to be independent of everything.
Whether ministers can give in to animal rights activists’ trade demands is an ongoing debate.
POLITICO revealed last month that the Department of Food and Agriculture had proposed a new legal structure to expedite import bans on products made overseas to low animal welfare standards. This would have given ministers the power to impose bans on specific products without a vote in parliament.
The Department for International Trade blocked the proposal, with then-trade minister Liz Truss saying she feared taking things off the table would reduce the government’s bargaining power. One official explained the thought: “If the other side has an idea of our negotiating parameters, it gives them an immediate advantage.”
Challenge to the WTO
Experts say the proposal would have risked further bans being challenged at the WTO.
Nations are free to ban products that could pose a risk to human or animal health, assuming the fears have a scientific basis. But banning a product on moral grounds is more difficult, because the meat of a well-treated animal has no material difference from the meat of a mistreated animal.
To impose a ban based on “public morals”, as the WTO puts it, nations would have to show that the restrictions would not discriminate against other countries, are not a disguised restriction on international trade and that the problem cannot be solved by another means, such as labelling.
Lockhart said such bans are politically sensitive as other nations will bristle at the UK in an attempt to change their production processes. “In fact, what you are trying to do is impose your production standards on third countries,” he explained.
To complicate matters, a ban could end up being unintentionally discriminatory. If certain practices are banned in Britain and the UK bans imports that are not made through the same process, it could block imports from another country even if its processes do not harm the well- to be animals.
“You can justify the measures – it’s not impossible to do so,” said Holger Hestermeyer, professor of international law at King’s College London. But he added: “It’s really very difficult to define those conditions.”
Hestermeyer said the Food Department’s proposal to expedite product bans would have made the process so easy it would have ended up being misused for protectionism or other non-social reasons, triggering challenges inevitable at the WTO. “You don’t want to set a precedent where a minister can ban things just because a lobbyist asks him to,” he said.
Be brave, Britain
But animal welfare campaigners are pushing the government to impose more import bans by any method, putting its moral standing to the test at the WTO.
“One of the very few benefits of leaving the European Union was that we could get things under control,” said Tory MP Roger Gale. “It’s certainly being used as an argument that we’re breaking WTO rules. I’m not sure that’s true.”
Lorraine Platt, founder of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, said Britain outside the EU had the opportunity to champion better animal welfare standards around the world and should be more “assertive” at the WTO. “We have to be ready to fight for what we think is right,” she said. “History will judge us. We have to be brave and we have to be ambitious.
The UK has not yet banned all imports for purely animal welfare reasons, although it has pledged to block foie gras and encouraging chefs to turn to vegan options. Some government officials say other countries have set a precedent for banning products on animal welfare grounds, and that the UK should move forward and fight back against government challenges. WTO if necessary. The EU bans imports of meat slaughtered in a way that does not respect its welfare during slaughter standards, for example.
One way to improve animal welfare through trade is through free trade agreements. In agreements with Australia and New Zealand, the UK has agreed to maintain high animal welfare standards.
The commitments are vague, although they could be strengthened in the final texts – for example, by stipulating that the goods only meet the criteria of domestic production and therefore can only benefit from duty-free trade if they respect the animal welfare standards.
“These are the kinds of things that countries use to try to introduce certain standards into agreements,” Hestermeyer said.
A spokesperson for the Department for International Trade said the UK was “a world leader in animal welfare, and we share the UK public’s high regard for maintaining our high standards”. The spokesperson added that the government “animal welfare action plan“would raise national standards even further, helping us to set an international example” and that its trade and agriculture watchdog “will ensure that we maintain our world-leading standards.”
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