What now for animal rights? PROPOSITIONS

Prepare for a long, Europe-wide campaign, argues Ronald Kirkby
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The Independent Online
Since 1979, when the RSPCA began campaigning at a European level, we have been aware of the deep divide between the countries of northern and southern Europe in their approach to animal welfare. While the southern countries are beginning to address the important issue of farm animal welfare, this week's European Agriculture Ministers' meeting, at which ministers wrangled for two days in the search of a compromise on rules for livestock travelling times, has highlighted just how much further there is to go. The task now is to develop the animal welfare organisations in southern Europe. They are on an extremely fast learning curve: it is a real pleasure to see their delight as their efforts begin to be rewarded by mass media coverage. In Greece, animal issues are now leading news items; in France yesterday Le Figaro ran three separate pieces on live transport; Italian, Spanish and Portuguese television channels have all given serious attention to the issue in a way that would have been unthinkable until recently.

We have to ensure that the European political agenda changes as public awareness grows. After all, many of the southern European organisations are still in a fledging state, whereas the RSPCA was formed in 1824. With over a century of animal welfare to catch up on, they need all the help they can get.

The 1996 inter-governmental conference is likely to be a focal point for the animal rights campaign - an unmissable opportunity to strengthen the the wider European position on animal welfare. In a future Europe, animals must not be treated as just another commodity. The stronger, more established partners in northern European states could (and should) set the agenda in this.

The momentum of animal issues campaign in the UK must not be lost, especially regarding our 750 million farm animals. It has taken many years for live transport to get this far up the agenda. Even before the major ferry companies' ban on transporting live animals last year, the issue was second only to cruelty to pets in RSPCA opinion polls.

The public are no longer prepared to travel knowing that live animals are being shipped on the same ferries to suffer long, stressful and, often, wholly unnecessary journeys. The ferry companies should remember this as they consider their response to feeble compromises and toothless regulations. They should bear in mind, too, that we will be even more vigilant on the enforcement front.

Popular campaigning by "real people" will ensure that UK politicians continue to take a lead at the European level. It has been gratifying to see the Foreign Secretary and the Agriculture Minister speaking out so strongly on animal welfare issues. Animal rights campaigners will not be satisfied until real progress is made in bringing the time and place of slaughter as close as possible to the point of production. It will take courage and initiative for the Government to promote a carcass- only trade. Such a move cannot be left merely to the hands of market forces, given the recent massive expansion of the live animal trade since Britain pulled out of the exchange rate mechanism.

The goal of a carcass-only trade is far from out of reach. Eight out of ten animals already leave the country as carcasses. Government initiatives directed at marketing high-quality, welfare-friendly products abroad means that, one day, the remaining two out of ten animals could leave the country as carcasses as well.

In the meantime, the initiative lies with Europe's consumers. They can chose between welfare-friendly and intensively farmed products. With the RSPCA's continuing campaign for a properly enforced, high-standard product labelling scheme, the task of choosing should become easier.

The writer is chairman of the RSPCA Council.