British musicians ‘shamefully failed by government’ over lack of visa-free EU travel

20 January 2021, 10:43 | Updated: 20 January 2021, 13:27

Sir Elton John, Nicola Benedetti and Sir Simon Rattle condemn Brexit agreement
Sir Elton John, Nicola Benedetti and Sir Simon Rattle condemn Brexit agreement. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Music stars, from Sir Simon Rattle and Nicola Benedetti to Sir Elton John, attack the government’s Brexit deal, which rules out visa-free tours for musicians.

Some of Britain’s biggest music names have condemned the government for “shamefully failing” the country’s musicians with its rejection of calls to rescue visa-free tours.

Ministers said yesterday that “taking back control” of borders must come first.

A letter published in The Times, signed by more than 100 musicians including violinist Nicola Benedetti, conductor Sir Simon Rattle and composer Judith Weir, master of the Queen’s music, denounces the government’s Brexit “negotiating failure”, which threatens the future of touring between the UK and EU countries.

Yesterday, culture minister Caroline Dinenage confirmed that musicians touring in the EU “will be required to check domestic immigration and minister rules for each member states in which they wish to tour”. These rules may include a visa, work permit and carnets for instruments and other concert equipment.

The letter, also signed by Sir Elton John, Ed Sheeran and several music industry heads, calls on the government to “urgently do what it said it would do and negotiate paperwork-free travel in Europe for British artists and their equipment”.

Read more: Musicians’ fury at report UK ‘rejected visa-free tours’ for artists >

Simon Rattle conducts the LSO in London's Trafalgar Square

Pop and rock stars, from Sting to Bob Geldof, have expressed fears the agreement will make touring Europe impossible for musicians, saying there is a “gaping hole [where] the promised free movement for musicians should be”.

A new blow to UK musicians, many of whom have not toured since March due to COVID-19, the restrictions are feared to “tip many performers over the edge”.

In response to the letter, the UK government said the EU “repeatedly rejected” its proposal that would have allowed musicians to tour, adding that the EU’s own offer would not have worked for touring musicians. “It did not deal with work permits at all and would not have allowed support staff to tour with artists,” a government spokesperson said.

The spokesperson added that signatories should be asking the EU why they “rejected the sensible UK proposal”.

The EU has denied these claims, saying the UK’s proposal would not have solved the issue and that they offered a 90-day visa-free offer for musicians and other professions.

Currently, musicians can perform in the EU for 90 days within a 180-day period, but they may need permits to perform in individual member states. This will have huge implications, as a recent report found that 78 percent of musicians visit EU or EEA countries at least once a year to perform.

Nicola Benedetti plays with Camerata Salzburg chamber orchestra at Birmingham Symphony Hall
Nicola Benedetti plays with Camerata Salzburg chamber orchestra at Birmingham Symphony Hall. Picture: Getty

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said this week that British ministers had rejected a proposal to offer visa exemptions to performing artists.

The Musicians’ Union’s general secretary Horace Trubridge, who the culture secretary says was “consulted extensively” on the issue of touring, called for clarity between the two parties, saying:

“We really need to see the details of the proposals made by the EU and the UK’s counteroffer in order to identify where the problems lie.

“It would be a tragedy if the livelihoods of so many performers and ancillary workers were to end up as a political football being kicked around by the UK and the EU. I urge the secretary of state to step up and secure a deal that enables frictionless work permit and carnet free touring for UK and EU performers.”

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden is set to meet with music industry representatives today (Wednesday 20 January) to address their concerns.

While musicians tackle uncertainties around touring, the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) has partnered with Viva La Visa to offer its members free visa and work permit advice in the EU.