Leave or Remain: only time will tell but we’ve got it pretty good already - Veterinary Practice
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Leave or Remain: only time will tell but we’ve got it pretty good already

Periscope continues the series of reflections on issues of current concern.

BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS IT WILL BE ALL OVER AND THE RESULT LONG SINCE KNOWN. Either it will be business as usual or the UK will be gearing up for (if exit it is) what I suspect will turn out to be a somewhat acrimonious split.

For despite those in the “leave camp” insisting that Europe will want to continue a positive relationship with us for economic reasons, those involved in divorces of any sort often throw good sense to the wind and instead adopt a somewhat irrational and vindictive stance. “Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face” is an all-too-common human trait.

Regardless of the outcome, it is interesting to look at the effect that being part of the EU has had on the UK veterinary profession over the last 25 years or so. Two things immediately spring to mind.

First is the large rise in the number of veterinary graduates from continental Europe who now work in the UK. Twenty-five years ago it was something to remark on if one came across a Spanish or Portuguese veterinary graduate vet working here. That is certainly no longer the case.

While I think it’s true to say the earliest wave of colleagues from these countries largely came to work in the Meat Hygiene Service (for which their veterinary degree prepared them far more thoroughly than that possessed by most UK graduates), that is no longer the case with many now working in high-end small animal referral practices.

From personal observation and experience, Greek and Italian graduates soon followed their Iberian colleagues and there appears to currently be an increase in Eastern European veterinary graduates from the likes of Poland and Romania working here.

While there are no doubt some vets out there who will argue the presence of “foreign” graduates has had a negative effect on veterinary assistants’ salaries, I would consider the overall effect of our European colleagues has been immensely positive.

The second change is that with the withdrawal of the six-month quarantine requirements for pet dogs and cats entering the UK from the EU (plus from many other countries too), the number of animals now travelling to these shores from across the channel has soared. Official figures show that nearly 165,000 dogs entered the UK under the Pet Travel Scheme in 2015 alone.

Couple that with the abandoning of compulsory tick treatment for dogs coming from Europe at the end of 2011 and the arrival of previously exotic tick-borne diseases such as canine Babesiosis was pretty much inevitable – which is indeed what has happened.

So what will happen with respect to the above two changes if Britain decided to leave on 23rd June? I presume vets graduating in what remains of the EU will no longer have the automatic right to work in the UK. That will no doubt be looked on with varying views depending on the perspective of the person doing the looking.

I presume also that those already here will be allowed to remain and if the infamous “points system” beloved of the leave campaigners ever materialises, I would assume there is a good case for allowing European vets to continue coming. I suspect that “in” or “out”, nothing much will change.

From the disease point of view, I have a sneaking suspicion that the genie is pretty much out of the bottle when it comes to the relatively free movement of livestock and in particular pets. The public is not going to want to go back to the “bad old days” of quarantine and besides, what’s done is done in terms of Babesiosis and this is unlikely to be reversed.

It is perhaps a salutary warning to other island nations around the world of the need to be super-cautious regarding the importation of disease, though I suspect the likes of Australia and New Zealand worked this out for themselves many years ago.

Getting to the truth

When it comes to the farming lobby there is a substantial split emerging on whether to stay or go. It is hard to unravel the truth and the facts from the rhetoric spewing from each camp, with both saying there will be more monetary support for British agriculture if they win the vote. I suspect the reality of either side’s promises will only be ascertained after the event.

Perhaps one of the reasons to stay from a veterinary perspective is the influence the UK has had and continues to have with regard to improving the welfare of farm animals in Europe. We have been at the forefront in pushing forward the improvement in welfare standards and while there is frequent moaning on this side of the channel that our European partners are not implementing the rules as rigidly as us, this is frequently anecdotal rather than factual in nature. One could even argue that some of our partners have higher welfare standards than our own, particularly the likes of Denmark when considering intensive pig production, so I don’t believe British agriculture is “penalised” by unilaterally following the rules quite as much as some of the “leavers” suggest.

Stepping away a little from the veterinary world, surely an area of great interest to us all as responsible citizens is the protection of the environment.

The EU has passed a lot of legislation concerning habitat protection and pollution control that has brought about huge improvements in the UK that I suspect would not have occurred had we been going it alone. The case of cleaner beaches around the UK illustrates the point. Back in the seventies we were still pumping raw sewage into the sea in large amounts and one never knew what might turn up on the sand next to you when having a picnic with the kids.

Fortunately, with very rare exceptions that is all in the past. But there is still much to be done and I suspect it will take longer if we do not have Brussels setting the agenda and breathing down our necks. Sometimes we need to be told what to do by someone from afar who recognises what is in the long-term interest of us all.

So by the time you read this the celebratory parties of the winning side will be long over. Whether the hangover was short-lived and it is back to business as usual or whether we have had a major fall-out with the neighbours that will take a long time to mend is already decided.

What is certain is that we are going to have to live with the consequences of the decision either way.

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