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Note: The contents in words and pictures of this article are based on the facts when it was first published (25.04.2006).

Vienna, am 25.04.2006

EU threat against Austrian circus animal thwarted

After complaints by foreign circuses, the EU commission threatened to undo the Austrian ban on wild animals in circuses. A concerted 7 month EU-wide campaign has persuaded the EU-commissioner otherwise.

From 1996, the Austrian animal rights group VGT had run a nationwide campaign in Austria to persuade the public and the politicians that wild animals in circuses must be banned. After a 2 year phase-out period, this complete ban on all wild animals actually came into place on 1st January 2005. In Austria, a last circus using zebras, buffaloes and a fox was stopped after a few months, while foreign circuses with wild animals were not allowed into the country. A German circus, which was denied entrance to Austria, complained to the EU-Commission. In a letter dated 12th October 2005, the EU-Commissioner for the Internal Market, Charlie McCreevy, demanded that the Austrian government withdraw the law, otherwise it would be challenged in the European Courts. In his opinion, the ban on wild animals was going too far to achieve the aim of animal protection and hence unlawfully restricted the Freedom of Provision of Services within the EU.

The EU-Commission demanded that the law at least be changed such that foreign circuses with wild animals can freely enter Austria and do performances here.

According to the EU Freedom of Provision of Services Directive, one of the 4 basic Freedoms of the Internal Market is that somebody, who legally provides services in one country, must be able to do so in any other country in the EU. According to this view it would be sufficient to have one EU member state allowing wild animals in circuses, so that all circuses from this country could go around the whole of the EU to do wild animal circus shows.

Despite the EU Commission being such a formidable opponent, VGT decided to rise to the challenge. VGT obtained professional expert evidence on EU law and on the suffering of wild animals in circuses and presented this to the EU-Commissioner and the Austrian government. On 20th December 2005, VGT presented a website: www.vgt.at/circus.php dedicated to this campaign in 30 different languages. With an automated service, visitors of the site could read and send protest emails in their own language to their EU Commissioner and to Commissioner McCreevy. At the beginning of April, more than 20.000 people had already used this opportunity. In addition, a large number of individuals and groups right across the EU have sent their own letters of complaint and expert statements in defence of the Austrian ban.

Also in the EU-Parliament, MEPs started to defend the Austrian ban. MEP Jörg Leichtfried from the Austrian Social Democrats gave a speech in the EU-Parliament on 13th December 2005 in the presence of Commissioner McCreevy saying that the protection of the welfare of animals must be paramount in the EU. With the ban on wild animals in circuses, Austria is leading the way for animal protection and should be applauded not reprimanded.

By Mid-January 2006, the Austrian government answered to the EU-Commission that the ban is just and legal and that Austria will stand by it and take up any challenge against it in the European Court.

A vast amount of media attention in favour of this position together with lobbying of the Austrian Parliament helped the government come to this decision. In reply Parliament argued that no less than a total ban is necessary to protect wild animals from suffering and that this goal is more important than the principle of free provision of services.

On 25th January 2006, Green Party MPs brought in a bill to the Austrian Parliament which demanded that the government support the ban by all means necessary and to use its 6 month period from 1st January 2006 as president of the EU-council to put apply pressure for a similar ban across the EU. A large majority voted in favour of this proposition.

On 7th February 2006, the German Parliament followed suit. The Green Party put a similar proposal to the vote. Again, a large Parliamentary majority approved the proposal, ending with the words: "The German Parliament, together with all animal protectionists in the EU, expects that the EU-Commission will stick to the aims formulated in the EU constitutional proposal, which includes animal welfare, and hence that the Commission will support all efforts on the national level to protect wild animals and that it won't insist on forms of keeping and using animals that are inconsistent with animal welfare or the protection of species."

On 16th February 2006, EU Parliament decided on a new directive regarding the provision of services across borders within the EU - which stated that those providing services must abide by the laws of the country they are providing the services in. This decision, clearly, also supported the position that a ban on wild animals in one country must be respected by the circuses in all other countries.

While the EU-Commissioner McCreevy was reluctant to answer any questions or to meet with animal advocate delegations, his replies to queries changed from being very assertive at the beginning of the campaign, to being quite defensive at the end. Also, a number of MEPs had been prompted by animal rights groups, especially the VGT, to have meetings with him. It soon became clear that the animal rights advocates had won the day. On 12th April 2006, Commissioner McCreevy said publicly regarding this case: "As we had received a complaint, we had to follow it up. But I am confident that this case can soon be closed." After publication of this statement, many MEPs congratulated the Commissioner for his decision to drop the case. With this outcome, it is clear that the welfare of animals is becoming an increasingly important issue in the EU.

So, while the case has not been closed officially, it seems that the Austrian ban on wild animals in circuses will prevail. Such cases, insiders in Brussels say, are never closed officially, but are just ignored instead of being decided upon. Austrian activists have said that it is a great victory. However, a period of vigilance is necessary!