Earlier this year, at the end of March 2017, the IAVS was invited to a critical meeting in Brussels where the European Commission met with stakeholders as part of their consultation and review of the 2010 EU Directive on animal experiments. The IAVS had already submitted a hard-hitting response to the Commission highlighting the failure of the new law to achieve promised improvements in animal welfare.
At the meeting, the IAVS was one of the most prominent animal advocates, and it was important to be present so we could be a robust representative for animals. However, the Commission’s approach makes it an uphill battle from the point of view of animal protection. The basic problem with the legislation arises from its ethical and political weaknesses.
The underlying legal grounds for EU legislation in this area is harmonisation of economic activity – there is no basis in EU law to legislate purely on animal welfare grounds. The problem - both from a harmonisation and animal protection perspective - stems from the Directive not enshrining representation of animals’ interests in the way animal research is governed. This means that when authorities do the harm-benefit assessment of proposed animal experimentation projects, there is no rule that stops them from putting zero weight on animal welfare considerations and effectively rubber-stamping all the projects. In fact they are free to put as much weight on animal welfare as they like. So this makes harmonisation virtually impossible. Perhaps more importantly, most governments are set up to prioritise the interests of big business and powerful elite groups such as the scientific establishment. So normally, animals are given little consideration when this law is being implemented. There is some variability – some countries with governments more responsive to public opinion do place a little more weight on animal protection. But overall, the range of approaches is at the worse end of the spectrum. So, the Directive is inherently flawed in relation to its two most important stated objectives – harmonisation and improving animal protection.
Weirdly, even though obviously the EU is a political institution, it is largely ignoring political analysis in its review of the Directive. At the meeting, it became clear that it was looking at this issue from a very narrow, technocratic perspective, ignoring the elephant in the room which is the effective exclusion of animals’ interests from this law. The Commission even decried the role of political considerations in implementing the law. But if, say, the Irish people wanted to place significant weight on animal welfare compared with, say, Greece, why shouldn’t the Irish government reflect that? These are critical ethical and democratic issues, and trying to frame them as purely technical is a classic tactic to allow vested interests to evade moral responsibility.
It was clear that the Commission, like the nation states, is much more interested in the views of the pharmaceutical industry than animal protection groups or the public. It is frustrating that the Directive does hold historic potential to move away from animal experiments and towards humane, more effective research methods. But a lack of political will is an obstacle to achieving progress. The IAVS will work to tackle this by continuing to speak up for animals in an authoritative and effective way.