Musicians’ fury at report UK ‘rejected visa-free tours’ for artists, despite blaming EU

11 January 2021, 12:27

Musicians’ fury at report UK ‘rejected visa-free tours’ for artists, despite blaming EU
Musicians’ fury at report UK ‘rejected visa-free tours’ for artists, despite blaming EU. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

The UK government has denied a claim it “rejected” an EU offer of visa-free touring, amid anger among British musicians and the arts industry.

An unnamed EU source has told newspaper The Independent the UK rejected an offer of ‘visa-free tours’ in Europe, which would have enabled musicians to travel without a permit.

The UK government had blamed Brussels for the extra paperwork and costs, which industry heads have warned will be “the straw that broke the camel’s back”, forcing some artists to quit touring altogether.

According to the source, a proposal to exempt performers from a visa was proposed by the EU, but “the UK said no” because it doesn’t want to afford the same privileges to EU artists performing in the UK.

“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,” an EU source close to the negotiations said.

The Incorporated Society of Musicians’ head, Deborah Annetts, said she was “horrified” by the revelation, while a Labour spokesperson said that if the government had really made the move to “make a political point, then music fans will not forgive them”.

The Brexit trade deal, which came into force on 1 January, does not guarantee visa-free travel for creatives throughout the EU’s 27 member states.

Read more: What does the government’s Brexit deal mean for touring musicians? >

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The Department of Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) had released a statement that said the UK had “pushed for a more ambitious agreement with the EU”, which would have protected musicians but its “proposals were rejected.”

However, The Independent’s source countered that 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”. They added: “There has to be reciprocity”.

The DCMS has repeated its previous claim to Classic FM, saying: “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 added, on the fresh allegation, “This story is incorrect and misleading speculation from anonymous EU sources.”

The source’s claim comes as a blow to UK musicians, many of whom have not toured since March due to the COVID-19 crisis.

A petition calling for a “free cultural work permit”, which has reached over 200,000 signatures, has been signed by the likes of Dawn French and Dua Lipa.

Concerns new permits will limit opportunities for young British artists
Concerns new permits will limit opportunities for young British artists. Picture: Getty

The composer Michael Berkeley said he had submitted an urgent question to the Lord Speaker. “I shall be asking the government why this reciprocal offer on touring musicians was not revealed, why it was turned down and how the government proposes to remedy the plight of 1000s of artists, crews and musicians whose already fragile livelihood will be still further harmed?” he tweeted.

Cellist Steven Isserlis tweeted the article, adding: “If this is true, then shame on those (ir)responsible. Apart from making the already decimated lives of musicians yet harder, it will also destroy the UK’s hard-won place as one of the world’s top musical destinations. For what end? Who gains?”

Deborah Annetts, the ISM’s chief executive, said: “The music sector feels deeply let down by the government and we want to get to the bottom of what happened.

“All the way through 2020, we were given assurances that the government understood how important frictionless travel is for the performing arts.”

The Musicians’ Union’s general secretary, Horace Trubridge, who has campaigned for months for “musicians’ passports” that would allow visa and permit-free travel, has called on the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, to clarify what happened in the negotiations.

What does this mean in practice for musicians?

From this month, UK musicians are not guaranteed visa-free travel when performing in any of the EU’s member states.

New permits and visas could put barriers in the way of one of the UK’s most important exports, live music, which brought £1.3 billion to the UK economy in 2019.

It’s a devastating blow for the country’s leading orchestras and bands, who rely on touring to make ends meet in an age where streaming and record sales bring in pennies.

Alison McGovern, Labour’s shadow culture minister, said: “What I worry about is younger, bands, or younger musicians, perhaps trying to get a position in an orchestra… people who have got the talent but might not have the resources to deal with all of this hassle.

“And I worry that if we don’t get an agreement to sort this out, it’s going to create a huge amount of hassle for some of our brightest talents in the UK.”

Unless the UK government can renegotiate, musicians will now need to rely on individual countries – like France, which has exempted UK performers from work visas for up to 90 days – to allow them to tour without being hit by huge costs and bureaucracy.

The Guardian has reported that leading business groups have urged ministers to restart trade negotiations with Brussels to sort out the “baffling” array of post-Brexit regulations that now threaten much of the UK’s export trade to the EU.