Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Austrevecius, Ms Pietikanen,
It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all to this important conference on Companion Animal Welfare and Protection. I would like to thank you, Petras Austreviciu], for your invaluable input in creating this event, as well as the other organisations involved: the “Animal Rights Protection Organisation Lithuania”, “Animal Advocacy and Protection”, the “Dogs Trust”, the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences and the “EU Dog & Cat Alliance”.
I attach great importance to stakeholder involvement and input in moving our policies forward. Conference such as this provide an excellent opportunity for an exchange of views and I thank you – once again – for giving me this opportunity to join you.
Let me start by undelining that animal welfare is an important part of my mandate, it is one of my personal priorities as Commissioner and it is specifically referred to in the EU Treaty. I take very seriously the recognition of animals as “sentient beings” as one of the founding elements of our basic law!
The second point I want to underline is that the EU has one of the most comprehensive frameworks in place to protect animal welfare, specifically for farmed animals. We have some of the highest standards in the world and it is fair to say that most of these standards have been developed thanks to the effort and leadership of the European Commission with the great help of the European Parliament. And I want to take this occasion to thank Ms. Pietikainen for her incredible work in this respect.
These principles are important to us, as policy makers and they are also very important for an overwhelming majority of European citizens. The recent Eurobarometer survey on “European citizens' attitudes towards animal welfare” highlighted precisely this. Over 90% of those interviewed believed it was important to protect the welfare of animals.
When it comes to animals that are kept for breeding or domestic sale, however, the EU’s scope for action on animal welfare falls within the principle of subsidiarity and much of the responsibility for it lies with Member States. It is up to them to consider what national rules are necessary to achieve better protection of welfare for these animals.
The European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals, does not constitute a legal basis for EU action and I know this is a particular point of concern for all of you here today.
The main legal tool we have in our hand for companion animals is the recently adopted EU Regulation on transmissible animal diseases - the “Animal Health Law” – which recognises the intrinsic link between animal health and welfare. It does not, however, contain specific welfare provisions beyond ensuring that animals are not subject to unnecessary pain and suffering in implementing control or prevention measures.
The identification and registration of dogs and cats where they do not cross EU borders is one such area that is not currently covered by EU rules and falls under the sole competence of Member States.
There is a possibility under the new Animal Health Law to extend the rules on identification and registration of terrestrial animals to include cats and dogs, depending on the risk the species poses.
Such a move would potentially have a serious impact on both pet owners and Member States' authorities. For this reason, a thorough impact assessment would first be needed to ensure any possible measures were proportionate, would add value, and would represent the correct and most appropriate way to address the identified animal health risks.
In particular, we would need to assess the benefits versus the costs of any new measures. We would need to examine whether it is the EU that is best placed to set any rules on identification and registration of cats and dogs, or whether it would be more appropriate and more effective if done by Member States, at Member State level.
I should point out that most Member States have already introduced systems of identification and registration for dogs and cats for tax purposes, for example, or for retrieving lost animals.
I would also like to stress that the Commission is aware of the challenges associated with the cross-border movement of dogs and cats and with the organisation of compliance checks at entry points. This is particularly relevant given the increasing number of people moving with their pets between Member States and the shortage of resources.
Smuggling and illegal movements create additional challenges. Their very nature means they are difficult to detect in official controls and they frequently evade them.
To help Member States address this issue, the Commission extended its "Better training for safer food" initiative (BTSF) in 2013 to include training of customs and veterinary officials. This facilitates the exchange of best practices, experience and intelligence between authorities.
Participants in these trainings have helped to disseminate this information throughout their countries. They have also helped form a voluntary network where daily findings are shared among countries and with the Commission.
I am delighted to say that this new network is proving a very effective and useful tool to help the Commission constantly monitor the situation and assess the needs for adapting the rules, while respecting its limited powers.
Having said that, it is important to stress and this is my deep belief when it comes to animal welfare, that big progress can also be achieved through non-legislative measures.
A stakeholders’ dialogue held in February 2016 discussed what voluntary initiatives could be used, what they would involve, and gave Member States and other actors the opportunity to share their experiences in relation to animal welfare.
There was a broad consensus that better information exchange on enforcement, science and education is needed and could make an important contribution.
This approach was also supported by the recent study on the welfare of dogs and cats involved in commercial practices, so called "Pet Regulation".
Its purpose was to determine whether any health risks that arise from commercial practices would justify taking measures to protect human or animal health, for example, by adapting the current EU legislation on cross-border movement of dogs and cats.
The study identified main areas of concern that could potentially jeopardise the health and welfare of dogs and cats. You will hear more about the detailed conclusions of this study later on in the programme.
While the study provides a very useful analysis, it is important to understand it was not in its scope to bring forward commitments or specific plans for action on behalf of the Commission. Nevertheless, we intend to assess its content carefully in the context of the review of EU animal health rules on cross-border movements of dogs and cats.
I should stress however, that this review has to be carried out within the limits of the Commission’s empowerment and the time limit set out in the recently adopted Animal Health Law.
In this respect I am convinced we are about to take a crucial step for the future of animal welfare through the establishment of an EU animal welfare Platform. This Platform should be composed of all the stakeholders involved in animal welfare, from Member States to consumers, from breeders to animal welfare organisation and as such it should become the real engine of future progress in the area.
This Platform should be used in deed as a forum for possible knowledge transfer and best practice exchange amongst Member States and stakeholders and as a place where specific commitments can be taken and monitored.
All actors an important role to play not just in promoting animal welfare, but also in promoting consumer awareness and the rights and responsibilities associated with acquiring and keeping pet animals.
It is my intention to have the Platform up and running before summer 2017.
I am pleased to confirm that the recently adopted Animal Health Law includes obligations for operators to register their establishments and keep certain records on terrestrial animals kept on the premises. It also empowers the Commission to further develop the legislation regarding the identification and registration of those animals.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
To conclude, we all have an important role to play in establishing and maintaining high standards of animal health and welfare.
At EU level, animals have been defined as "sentient beings" in the Treaty since 2009. This marked an important step forward. It is one of the provisions of general application that affects several EU policies and implies welfare considerations be taken into account.
Ensuring that this principle is observed and enshrined is primarily the work of Member States and stakeholders. Good animal health and animal welfare practices must be encouraged, not least by sharing practical and economically feasible solutions. All relevant stakeholders need to work together to determine the most effective and appropriate path forward.
Personally I can guarantee all my strong personal commitment to the issue and I can assure you that I will take the outcome of this conference into account when the Commission discusses possible options to protect companion animals.
I wish you all a very fruitful, enjoyable and successful conference.