Ending the “Cage Age” with the ECI – Will It Work?

Ending the “Cage Age” with the ECI – Will It Work?

In September 2020, “End the Cage Age”, the sixth successful European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), was submitted to the European Commission. It calls for a ban on caged farming in the livestock industry. What can be expected from the Commission on the initiative? This article questions critically whether the initiative can really be called “successful”.

Not Starting from Ground Zero

Close to 1.4 million Europeans support “End the Cage Age”, the third-highest number of signatures ever collected for a public initiative in the EU. A great deal of EU citizens formally call for higher animal welfare standards. The EU has the competence to act on that.

The EU already banned battery cages of laying hens before 2012, and takes pride in having one of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. In May 2020, the Commission announced better animal welfare and more sustainable practices in its 2020 Farm-to-Fork Strategy of the European Green Deal, which aims at transforming the food production sector towards greater sustainability.

This ECI is submitted in a time where the intensive animal husbandry is seeing greater public scrutiny at the European level than ever before. The European Court of Auditors has detected flaws in the animal welfare system, and the European Environment Agency has called out problems of intensive livestock rearing, and has urged reduced meat consumption. In this context, the initiative enters the stage by demanding more drastic changes than the EU has dared to introduce so far.

Apart from the EU institutions, member states are also interested in raising standards. For instance, a Dutch government program funding the exit of intensive pig producers, the ban of laying-hen cages in the Czech Republic from 2027, and the plan of the German “Borchert Commission” to increase animal welfare gradually until 2040. At present, national agricultural ministers are discussing an EU animal welfare label that would provide a coherent EU scheme. These examples show that this ECI is addressing an issue which many are concerned about at both the national and EU level.

Undoubtedly, this initiative echoes ambitions of European and national institutions that have not been fulfilled yet. It calls upon institutions to do what they have praised but have delayed for years in practical terms. With bottom-up support by Europeans, a big step forward should be within reach.

What Could Be Expected from “End the Cage Age”?

The initiative’s website states, “An ECI is a powerful way to influence lawmakers in Europe.” Regretfully, the statement is valid de jure but no so much de facto. There are at least three worrying trends that the initiative’s organizers, supporters and Europeans should note.

First, even with the third highest number of signatures, such scale of support from across the Union has no binding effect on the Commission’s subsequent response. In other words, the Commission is not obliged to say “Yes” to any demand by initiating legislative proposals and/or policy measures. Considering the past four completed initiatives, tangible outcomes with respect to the initiatives’ objectives are hardly achieved. It is questionable whether “End the Cage Age” will be different.

Second, considering the dominant role of the Commission, a passive role of the European Parliament urther undermines the impact of an initiative. The EP has rarely acted beyond its legal obligation. It has adopted only one resolution in support of the ECI and an initiative. This trend will change in the near future. Since the latest ECI Regulation entered into force in 2020, the EP shall assess “the political support for the initiative” and “the measures taken by the Commission”. Although these new rules do not apply here, it implies that the EP should have done more on ”End the Cage Age”.

Third, the lengthy procedure of each initiative not only exhausts organizers and participants, but also has the potential of making the ECI obsolete. “End the Cage Age” is now in its 27th month and still awaiting the meeting with the Commission and the public hearing at the EP. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, both sessions are unlikely to happen any time soon. The initiative may be deemed irrelevant if significant reforms are announced before the final answer from the Commission. For instance, the EU recently included the revision and evaluation of existing legislations in this policy field in the Farm-to-Fork strategy. This not only possibly wastes the resources contributed in this initiative, but also diminishes the credibility of the ECI in the long run.

All in all, the ECI is not a strong tool for policy-making at the European level. In the worst-case scenario, without an obligation to act, the Commission might just discard this successful initiative. On the other hand, if there is great public pressure on this topic, the Commission might still consider a long-term solution in line with its own goals and obligations. “End the Cage Age” brings a sensitive topic from the bottom up, increasing legitimacy and pressure for the Commission to act boldly.

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Nikolas Kockelmann and Kwan Lok Alan Ho

Graduates from the Center for European Integration Studies at the University of Bonn, Germany

Image by Birgit Röhrs /Pixabay 

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