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Labour MP Harriet Harman puts forward ten point plan to secure visa-free EU touring for UK musicians

By | Published on Wednesday 17 March 2021


Labour MP Harriet Harman has launched a ten point plan for ensuring that UK musicians continue to be able to tour the EU once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. The document is an effort to force the government out of its inaction on the matter, as the window of opportunity provided by the pandemic to address post-Brexit issues before they have a major effect closes.

Harman told the Guardian that there is an “unnerving silence” from the government on the need to ensure that artists can continue to easily tour Europe post-Brexit. She blamed a lack of any effort to do so on an “ignorance” of the economic importance of music to the UK.

When the last minute UK/EU post-Brexit trade deal was agreed in December, it was quickly noticed that there were no provisions for bureaucracy-free touring, either for UK artists going to the EU or vice versa. Such provisions would have ensured that performers would not require visas, travel permits or equipment carnets when on tour. They were absent from the final deal despite repeated promises from ministers that this would be a feature of any agreement.

The UK government quickly blamed it all on the EU, claiming to have put forward a plan for visa-free touring that was rejected. The EU said that it was completely the other way around – it put forward a brilliant proposal that the UK slapped out of its hands and kicked under a hedge.

It subsequently turned out that they were both right. Both sides had put forward proposals, neither of which were acceptable to the other side. For the EU, because it went against its fundamental principles. For the UK, because it didn’t chime with the government’s ‘fuck all foreigners’ policy that Harman says means ministers have “boxed themselves into a corner”.

The lack of an EU-wide arrangement for musicians means that they will have to deal with each European country individually. For some countries, that means very little will change. However, for others, artists may have to secure travel permits for themselves and crew, and carnets for their equipment. This may add hundreds or even thousands of pounds to the cost of a tour, which for many artists will making touring across Europe impossible.

Minister For Digital And Culture, Caroline Dinenage, has said on multiple occasions that the government recognises how great the UK is at cultural stuff and the financial implications of putting up a load of barriers for touring performers. However, government policy on the matter so far has largely been along the lines of, “Well, if the EU wants to sort this out, we’re not stopping it”.

There has been vague talk of securing specific deals with individual EU member states and of setting up a UK music export office, but in the main very little seems to be actually happening. This despite current COVID restrictions providing a window of opportunity to sort out the problems while no one is able to tour anyway. Failure to capitalise on that opportunity will mean that a music community already on the brink because of COVID will face a new round of challenges once those restrictions lift.

With all that in mind, earlier this month the Musicians’ Union and Incorporated Society Of Musicians teamed up to call for more urgency on the matter. A call that has so far gone unheeded. Except by Harriet Harman, of course.

Speaking to the Guardian, she said: “There’s the assumption that somehow it’s going to be perfectly all right because [musicians] always have been, and they’re so successful so they’ll be fine. And also partly: oh well, it’s just a few middle-class people. Which is completely wrong. The financial necessity of [touring] being part of the business model of UK musical activity is absolutely beyond doubt. But there are also artistic issues because music thrives when there’s a cultural interchange and artists are able to collaborate. And that generates even more artistic creativity”.

“I don’t think the government should be defensive, even if the truth is that they have cocked it up”, she added. “The sector just wants to sort it out and to help”.

And so, to help the government on its way to doing the right thing, Harman has put together a ten point plan, which is as follows…

1. Negotiate reciprocal bilateral work permit agreements with countries, prioritising those countries most financially important to UK musicians and those that do not offer cultural exemptions for work permits, such as Spain, Italy, and Portugal.

2. Negotiate a cultural exemption from ‘cabotage rules’ for music tours.

3. Negotiate the exemption of musical instruments and equipment from carnet and CITES requirements.

4. Publish correspondence and relevant information relating to previous negotiations with the EU on this matter, as it is not possible for the UK music sector to assist in lobbying EU countries without knowing what the UK government has already proposed and why it was rejected.

5. Guarantee the continuation of at least part of the furlough and self-employed support for the music sector even after COVID restrictions have been lifted until such time as the visa issues have been resolved.

6. Create a Music Touring Fund to support touring until such time as these issues are resolved.

7. Extend the VAT reduction for the cultural sector until businesses have fully reopened and sales have restarted and until the visa issue is resolved enabling EU touring to recommence.

8. Establish within government a Music Export Office (within the Department For Digital, Culture, Media And Sport, the Cabinet Office, the Department For International Trade, or the Department For Business, Energy And Industrial Strategy) to lead on the UK-EU and bilateral negotiations for musicians touring in EU countries and to co-ordinate support to musicians dealing with visa and other obstacles until such time as the visa issues are resolved.

9. Establish an ad hoc cross-departmental working group to co-ordinate work by officials across government departments on this issue.

10. Designate a minister to lead on this re-negotiation and lead the cross-departmental work on this issue.

Do all that and everything will be just fine, reckons Harman. Whether the government takes any notice of her plan is another matter. It is unlikely that government ministers are not aware of these options already – particularly as many have been put forward by music industry organisations as they have called for action in recent months. But pressure on the government to do something is mounting, and this only adds to that.

Read Harman’s full proposal document here.