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By Chris Cooke | Published on Monday 11 January 2021
There was further outrage in the music community this weekend over the post-Brexit trade deal struck between the UK and EU. With the industry already angered at the effect that deal will have on UK artists touring Europe, it was reported that British ministers actually rejected an EU proposal that would have ensured no new bureaucratic requirements for such artists. However, the UK government continues to insist that it was EU officials who rejected a proposed solution.
When the last minute UK/EU trade deal was published days before it came into effect at the start of the month, the music industry was quick to note that it didn’t include any specific provisions that would ensure visa-free touring for British artists across the EU, and EU artists across the UK.
That was despite music industry reps having repeatedly warned ministers of the negative impact that would occur if artists were faced with the cost and hassle of securing travel permits and equipment carnets when touring Europe post-Brexit. Lots of tours might have to be called off, ministers were told, and those British artists who could still tour might be forced to do so with session musicians and crew members based in other EU countries.
Because there are no specific provisions for performers in the trade deal, the rules for British artists touring Europe now vary from country to country. In some places, there won’t be too many new bureaucratic requirements. In others, travel permits and/or carnets may be required. It also means that artists and their teams need to get their heads around a multitude of different rules, any of which could change at any time.
Facing criticism from the music community and MPs shortly after the trade deal was made public, the UK government insisted that the blame for the new bureaucratic barriers that British musicians now face lay with the EU.
A spokesperson said that the UK had “pushed for a more ambitious agreement with the EU on the temporary movement of business travellers”, which would have also covered performers. But, the spokesperson added, the EU declined to sign up to said ambitious agreement. Cabinet Office minister Nicholas True then repeated those claims in Parliament last week.
However, in a report this weekend it was alleged that – in fact – it was UK ministers who knocked back an EU proposal to allow performers to tour visa free, because the UK government wasn’t willing to offer to European artists wanting to tour the UK the same deal the EU was offering British artists who wanted to tour EU member states.
Because doing so – it seems – would have conflicted with the “fuck all foreigners” policy being pursued by Home Secretary and free-movement-phobe Priti Patel.
According to The Independent, an EU source has said: “It is usually in our agreements with third countries that [work] visas are not required for musicians. We tried to include it, but the UK said no”.
Confirming the issue was reciprocity – ie that any agreement would cut both ways – The Independent’s source added: “The UK refused to agree because they said they were ending freedom of movement. It is untrue to say they asked for something more ambitious”.
In a classic game of he-said-she-said, the UK government is standing its ground, however. Responding to The Independent’s report, a government spokesperson told NME: “This story is incorrect and misleading speculation from anonymous EU sources. The UK pushed for a more ambitious agreement with the EU on the temporary movement of business travellers, which would have covered musicians and others, but our proposals were rejected by the EU”.
It is possible that both sides are technically correct in claiming that the other side rejected their proposals regarding visa-free travel for performers across Europe. It seems that the UK government may have proposed some sort of 30 day arrangement while the EU offered a 90 day arrangement. So the dispute was more over the specifics of any arrangement, rather than the principle of ensuring that musicians didn’t face a load of new bureaucratic hassles.
But either way, music industry reps this weekend demanded clarity from the UK government as to exactly what was discussed during trade deal negotiations, and why no compromise could be reached on this point. Politicians had previously indicated that a system would be put in place to ensure musicians would not need travel permits and carnets to tour Europe post-Brexit.
The Musicians’ Union stated yesterday that is “demanding that the Culture Minister urgently confirms one way or another whether it was the UK government that blocked the deal which would have granted UK musicians easy access to EU states for touring”.
Referencing the claims made in The Independent, the union’s General Secretary Horace Trubridge added: “With the British music business having been devastated by COVID-19 – and with no end in sight to the black hole of cancelled concerts, tours, festivals and regular gigs that is the very bedrock of our world-class industry – the news, if true, that our own elected representatives chose to turn down such an offer is nigh-on unbelievable”.
Echoing that sentiment, Deborah Annetts, CEO of the Incorporated Society Of Musicians, stated: “The ISM and the rest of the music sector are appalled by shocking reports that the UK government rejected an offer from the EU to waive bureaucratic work permits for British touring musicians, in direct contrast to statements made by ministers in Parliament last week”.
“If these reports are true then we are looking at a serious breach of trust after the government provided multiple assurances throughout 2020 that they understood the importance of frictionless travel for UK musicians and would be negotiating an ambitious agreement to achieve this objective”.
“We join the call with leading UK businesses that trade negotiations with Brussels should restart to address the serious regulatory challenges facing many industries, and a better deal for UK musicians should be included in those talks”, she added. “We need complete transparency on what was discussed during the negotiations and an urgent statement in the House Of Commons outlining what steps the government are taking to protect our world-leading performing arts sector”.
Speaking for the UK live industry, Greg Parmley, CEO of new trade group LIVE, said: “The live music industry is already facing a catastrophic situation due to the COVID shutdown. LIVE is calling on the government to give urgent clarification as to what was offered by the EU to enable visa-free tours by UK artists and crew. All parties need to work quickly to ensure that once COVID restrictions are lifted UK artists are able to work across the EU with the same freedom that has been secured for people doing other business activity”.
Meanwhile Annabella Coldrick of the Music Managers Forum added: “Last February, the Home Secretary stood up in the House Of Commons and claimed that the situation for British musicians touring Europe would be completely unchanged, and that touring routes would operate as they do now. A year on, and such assurances appear to be misplaced and, if recent newspaper reports are true, as a result of intransigence on the part of the UK government”.
“This is utter insanity”, she added. “Music is at the heart of Britain’s national culture, and a sector where we are genuinely world-beating. For the sake of our artists, our musicians, and the tens of thousands of people who work in live music, we need urgent clarity from ministers as to what is going on and an immediate commitment to resolve the situation to avoid a serious impact on our ability to tour the EU post-COVID”.