In a dramatic example of European free trade laws being put into practical effect, a local authority is facing a £1.5 million damages claim after taking the ‘moral and political’ – but hasty and legally unwise – decision to close the Port of Ramsgate to live animal exports.
Noting that even activities that are deeply unpopular with sections of the public are entitled to protection, the High Court found that Thanet District Council had failed in its duty to keep the port open to lawful trade in September and October 2012 and that its decision had fundamentally breached Article 35 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
Thanet had suspended livestock exports through the port the day after a shocking incident in which two sheep were drowned and 42 had to be destroyed. Ramsgate was at the time Britain’s only hub for live sheep exports and 45,000 lambs were awaiting shipment to France for the Muslim festival of Eid.
The Court found that the Council knew full well that it had no responsibility for the welfare of animals passing through the port and no power to impose any kind of ban on live exports. The Council had ‘wanted to ban the trade from Ramsgate port for a long time’ and its true motive was a ‘moral and political’ one.
Ruling that the Council’s action ‘was a serious breach of a fundamental element of the EU Treaty’, Mr Justice Birss observed, “The animal export trade is not popular. It involves activities which are highly distasteful to many people. However, the law does not exist only to protect the interests of the popular.
“I have found that Thanet District Council did not have the authority to impose the ban. It was a disproportionate decision, reached in haste without separate legal advice, and breached a fundamental element of the rules governing free trade in the EU.” The Dutch exporters put their losses due to the ban at around £1.5 million. However, the assessment of their damages was left over to another day.