New Commission proposal is good for seal protection

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The EU must uphold its ban on seal products and not bow to hunting lobbies, writes David Martin.

David Martin is a Labour MEP for Scotland.

The 2009 seal ban regulation was a huge victory in recognising animal welfare in EU trade policy. When it was tested recently at the World Trade Organisation, the WTO confirmed in a landmark ruling trade measures on the grounds of public morality such as animal welfare are legitimate. This significant achievement is now under threat in the revision of the regulation.

One of the first legislative acts adopted by the European Parliament back in 1983 was the Seal Pup Directive, which aimed to prohibit the import of products of nursing infant seals. Following this the Canadian sealing industry cynically shifted its focus to killing harp seals a few days older, after they had started shedding their white fur at around 12-14 days old. The silver fur underneath was then marketed in Europe.

The cruelty of the commercial seal slaughter was abhorrent to many Europeans. I had the dubious honour of observing the killing first hand in the Canadian hunt. The public outcry led to renewed calls for political action and in 2008, thanks to pressure from the European Parliament and member states, the Commission finally delivered such a proposal. It was a weak proposal for fear of inciting a WTO complaint, but finally the European Parliament adopted by overwhelming majority a strong prohibition on commercial seal product trade.

This legislation had immediate impact. Despite high kill quotas, the number of seals being slaughtered fell dramatically. Animal protection groups estimate around 1.8 million seals have been spared a horrific death as a consequence of the EU ban.

And yes, the Commission’s fears of a WTO challenge were not unfounded. In 2010, Canada and Norway launched their legal challenge. However, concerns that a comprehensive EU ban on commercial seal product trade would not withstand the scrutiny of a WTO panel proved completely groundless when the WTO upheld the ban.

The case did not, however, go without a hitch, because the WTO determined that two derogations violated its rules. The Marine Resource management (MRM) exception which permitted sales of seal products derived from sustainability hunts, and the Indigenous Communities (IC) exception which allowed the sale of products from Inuit subsistence hunts were both challenged. Consequently, the EU has agreed to bring the legislation into compliance with WTO principles.

The Commission has quite rightly opted for a surgical approach to do the very minimum necessary to achieve WTO compliance. This involves the deletion of a little-used derogation for the non-profit products of small hunts conducted for the purposes of marine resource management, and the revision of the derogation that permitted products from traditional, subsistence hunts conducted by indigenous communities.

If only things were so simple. The Parliamentary debate has been largely hijacked by hunting interests egged on by an aggressive lobby which have gleefully seized the opportunity to try to undermine the legislation in ways that would leave it vulnerable to fresh WTO challenges.

The MRM exception was in fact only introduce to placate a few member states which kill some seals for population management. It is ironic that some leading the charge to reintroduce it have never formally applied for the establishment of a recognised body to certify derogated seal products. Sweden is the only member state to have thus far done so. Data available for 2012 and 2013 reveal that a total of 31 certificates have been issued by County Boards during the years for which data is currently available.

This suggests that the tears that are being shed over the proposed demise of the MRM exception are crocodile ones. If they cared so much about the immorality of wasting the carcasses of seals shot by hunters, then why has so little use been made of the derogation?

According to the WTO, the problem does not lie in either the design or application of this derogation, but in the very fact that it exists at all. Whichever way one looks at it, the derogation has to go.

In this regard, it is also worth reminding folk that this legislation is not about regulating seal hunting. The deletion of the MRM exception will not stop any member state from killing seals for population management purpose; it will simply prevent their products from being placed on the market.

I strongly urge MEPs to resist all attempts to reintroduce this derogation. It is wildly disproportionate for the EU to risk failing to meet its obligations to the WTO just to allow the possibility for a few hunters in a few member states to make a profit from products derived from the few seals that they have killed for marine resource management purposes.

The second key amendment to the ban on trade in seal products is a more politically sensitive one. The WTO determined that the aim of the IC exception – the derogation for the products from indigenous subsistence hunts – was legitimate, but that there are numerous flaws both in how the exception was designed and applied. In particular, it concluded that the EU had failed to make comparable efforts in facilitating market access for Canadian Inuit products as it had for Greenlandic Inuit products.

The Commission’s proposal will, I believe, solve the problems with the IC exception and bring it into compliance with WTO rules. No-one is suggesting doing away with this derogation.

It is important to remember that this legislation was designed to prohibit the trade in commercial seal products. It was strongly supported by European citizens. The WTO upheld the principle of trade measures for animal welfare reasons. Weakening the fundamentals of the legislation would not only go against the WTO requirements but actually invite fresh challenges as the EU would still not be in compliance with the ruling.

The seals case could indeed be a litmus test of how seriously the European Parliament regards its obligations under the WTO. I hope that we do not fail this test, nor weaken landmark animal welfare legislation on an issue that many EU citizens hold dear.

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