Euroviews. To protect caged animals, we are suing the European Commission

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Despite a clear commitment from the European Commission in 2021 to deliver proposals to ban caged animal farming by the end of 2023, it has failed to deliver on its promise.

As a result, last week, the End the Cage Age Citizens’ Committee — a group of seven EU citizens who started the ECI — launched a ground-breaking legal action against the European Commission for failing to act. 

Funded by Compassion in World Farming, this historic case could result in the Commission being compelled by the court to set out a clear timescale for the legislation. 

It is the first legal action to hold the Commission to account over its failure to act on an ECI — an important test case for both animal welfare and democracy.

Despite overwhelming support, animals continue to suffer

Back in 2021, Compassion in World Farming, along with millions of European citizens, celebrated the news of the European Commission’s clear commitment. 

It followed the first ever successful European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) to ‘End the Cage Age’, which was signed by an overwhelming 1.4 million EU citizens and supported by a coalition of 170 NGOs led by Compassion. 

ECIs were introduced with the specific purpose of giving citizens more influence over EU decision making and the tool is described by the European Commission as “a way for you and other Europeans to take an active part in EU policy-making”.

Pregnant sows are forced to nurse their piglets in crates so small they can’t even turn around; chickens can’t spread their wings, and along with countless rabbits and quail will spend all their lives in barren cages.

Sows investigation in France, 2022

In October last year, the European Commission’s own Eurobarometer survey revealed that an overwhelming nine out of ten, or 89% of EU citizens — around 400 million people — believe animals should not be farmed in individual cages. 

The Commission’s own scientific advisers, the European Food Safety Authority, have also backed the phasing out of cages on welfare grounds for pigs, dairy calves, laying hens, ducks, quail and rabbits.

Meanwhile, more than 300 million pigs, hens, rabbits, ducks, quail and geese continue to suffer confinement and misery in cages across the EU each year.

Pregnant sows are forced to nurse their piglets in crates so small they can’t even turn around; chickens can’t spread their wings, and along with countless rabbits and quail will spend all their lives in barren cages. 

Ducks and geese are caged for force-feeding to produce foie gras.

How did the ban get derailed?

In September, we hoped to hear European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen set out the plans to deliver the ban in her State of the Union speech. 

Instead, what we heard were words that echoed the letter she received from the farming federation Copa Cogeca. It seems she caved into pressure from the agriculture lobby to put the ban on hold.

Together with my colleagues in End the Cage Age Citizens’ Committee, we have made repeated requests to meet with the president on behalf of the millions of EU citizens who support the cages ban, without success. 

The cages ban — part of the Commission’s excellent Farm to Fork strategy to meet climate and nature obligations — also has the chance to provide wider environmental and socio-economic benefits.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addresses a media conference at the conclusion of an EU Summit in Brussels, March 2024

Yet, last October, an investigation from Lighthouse Reports revealed that “an increasingly assertive meat industry helped derail a historic democratic demand to improve animal welfare standards in the EU”.

We simply cannot allow the powerful farming lobby to have preferential access to decision-makers to influence them to backtrack on promises they have made to citizens. 

This is particularly unjust when those citizens have followed the very process designed to give them more influence over EU decision-making. As a result of this injustice, both animal welfare and democracy are now at stake.

We can’t wait any longer

There is simply no justification for any further delay. All the appropriate preparation, assessments and consultations have already been carried out by Commission officials and the proposals make strong provision for financial support to help farmers transition to cage-free systems during a phase-out. 

This measure is backed by the animal welfare movement who believe public subsidies should be redirected to reward farmers for transitioning to high welfare and nature-positive systems that benefit society.

Pursuing legal action is not a choice we have taken lightly, but we cannot allow the European Commission to break its promises to citizens, making a mockery of democracy in the process.

Due to feather pecking some hens have lost a large number of feathers from around their necks and bodies.

The cages ban — part of the Commission’s excellent Farm to Fork strategy to meet climate and nature obligations — also has the chance to provide wider environmental and socio-economic benefits. 

A report from the Institute for European Environmental Policy found that the ban would have greater sustainability benefits. 

In addition, it concluded that the current discrepancy between legislation in member states was leading to uneven market conditions across the EU, and that a level playing field should be created.

Democracy is not to be mocked

Pursuing legal action is not a choice we have taken lightly, but we cannot allow the European Commission to break its promises to citizens, making a mockery of democracy in the process. 

Most importantly, we cannot stand by silently while millions of animals continue to suffer in cages. Caving into the big agriculture lobby and continuing to use taxpayer funds to prop up this damaging sector is not helping citizens, or the majority of small-to-medium-scale farmers.

The hope is that this ground-breaking legal action — launched on behalf of millions of supportive EU citizens as well as the voiceless 300 million animals still suffering every day in cages — will speed up the ban and ensure that every cage is an empty cage. We will not rest until we end the Cage Age.

Olga Kikou is Head of Compassion in World Farming EU and Substitute Representative of the End the Cage Age European Citizens’ Committee.

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