Europeans invented animal law as we know it 200 years ago, and to this day, their animal law is the most progressive on earth. For example, many of the intense procedures that farmers use on farm animals in the United states—including debeaking, restrictive veal crates, and sow gestation crates—are illegal in Europe. This paper takes a look at how European animal law changed from 2003-2009. Specifically, it looks at the historical background, and at major laws that have passed in recent years. It finds that, compared to the 1990s, the years after 2003 were a slow time for animal welfare legislation, and it tries to account for why that may be. Finally, it looks to the future of animal law.
England was the birthplace of Europe’s first animal protection statute, in the early 1800s, and also of the modern animal rights movement, which really began with the publication of a book on factory farming, Animal Machines, in England in 1966. England soon started passing the kinds of laws that now afford some protection to animals across Europe. The first famous one protected animals’ "five freedoms": the freedoms to turn around, to groom oneself, to get up, to lie down, to stretch one’s limbs. In time, European countries started passing their own animal protection laws. An early version of the European Union started passing wide-ranging European animal laws too, requiring animals to be rendered unconscious before slaughter. In the early nineties, the EU expanded upon this protection, banning tethers for veal crates and initiating other reforms. In the late nineties, the EU banned battery cages for hens, which crammed as many as ten hens inside a cage the size of one filing cabinet drawer. (These cages are still used in the United States to this day.) The EU passed plenty of other new animal legislation around this time too.
From 2003 to 2009, though, European animal law stopped growing so fast. Without question, there was still some movement forward: Spain passed a symbolic law that promised to grant apes the rights to life and liberty. But the pace of progress slowed. The EU government passed no major new laws. Many European consumers effectively ignored new European laws by buying cheap meat from foreign countries, where animals were not protected. The European Court of Justice, which is Europe’s version of the Supreme Court, interpreted a significant new animal law narrowly, so it had a small impact. European countries like Austria that had once stood behind peaceful animal activists started targeting those activists and cracking down on them. Compared with what had come before 2003, these developments showed Europe slowing down on passing new laws for animals.
What explains this slowdown in big new laws for animals? A few things. First, the flurry of lawmaking just before 2003 helps explain the lull that followed it. Before they pass new laws, legislatures usually like to hold off until the laws they have just passed are implemented before passing new ones. The years following 2003 were one such implementation period, when it was fully to be expected that no new legislation would be passed. Second, various Eastern European countries without a strong history of animal rights have recently joined the EU—and they vote. The new membership has therefore made it harder for traditionally animal-friendly countries, such as those in northern Europe, to get bold new laws passed at the EU level. Third, it is expensive to pay for new protections for animals, and there have been disputes over how to fund measures that have already passed. In a climate like this, it is very difficult to get additional costly legislation passed. Fourth, violent animal extremists—who blow up research labs, threaten scientists, and so on—have damaged the reputation of the animal rights movement in Europe, sparking a backlash against the animal rights movement and only strengthening young people’s support of animal testing. Fifth, the reputation of mainstream, peaceful animal advocates has gone downhill—partly because of extremist attacks, and partly because of animal advocates’ own press blunders, which have made these groups come off to mainstream society as a kooky fringe. Their reputation thus weakened, these mainstream advocates have not wielded as great an influence on policy making that they could. The five factors above have made it much harder to get bold new animal legislation passed in Europe from 2003-2009. Together, they help explain the downturn.
But what about the future? Is the stasis in animal law observable since 2003 likely to persist, with little new legislation being passed? While nobody can predict the future, we can venture educated guesses. And the answer looks like a decisive No. Many factors suggest that progressive legislation is to be expected as we move forward. First, Europeans still care deeply about animal welfare. Polls suggest they are no less committed to it today than they were before 2003, when so much new legislation was getting passed. Second, it is not just Europe’s people who are serious about animal welfare; their politicians are too. The EU is serious about moving forward in the next few years, as demonstrated by its comprehensive Animal Health Strategy Plan for 2007-13. Third—and perhaps the most important over the longterm—climate change policy is likely to place huge pressure on the factory farming industry to reform itself. Science has established that factory farming industry is destroying the planet through the extensive deforestation, waste production, and emissions. Because farming practices that are green and farming practices that are better for animals tend to go hand in hand—think, for instance, of cows grazing on a pasture instead of a feedlot—the environmental movement is likely to generate better conditions for farm animals as it gains momentum in coming years.