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“No appetite” for touring agreement with EU, deals with individual states now “likely success route”, select committee hears

By | Published on Wednesday 17 February 2021

Houses Of Parliament

Whose fault was it that the needs of touring artists and the UK live sector were not met by the post-Brexit trade deal between the UK and the European Union? The EU’s! What needs to happen now? Speedy deals with individual EU member states! How soon should that happen? Very, very, very soon! How many negotiations are currently underway? None!

And that, my friends, is a quick summary of the government’s evidence to yesterday’s select committee hearing in Parliament. The hearing was focused on the mighty big fuck up that is the lack of any agreement in the big UK/EU trade deal to ensure that British performers can continue to tour Europe without having to secure visas, travel permits and equipment carnets, or navigate any other tedious bureaucracy.

Minister For Digital And Culture Caroline Dinenage and her Department For Digital, Culture, Media And Sport colleague Alastair Jones both gave evidence at yesterday’s hearing. As did reps for the creative industries, including Incorporated Society Of Musicians chief exec Deborah Annetts.

Much of what was discussed was simply a reiteration of everything that has already been said ever since it became clear that visa-free touring was not in the UK/EU trade deal at the end of December. Including during another Parliamentary session on the problem just last week.

There was a little extra time to dig into details and talk about blame in this hearing. But the basic thrust remains the same: musicians and live music companies are in a difficult position – particularly emerging artists and UK-based haulage companies that specialise in touring.

Travel restrictions and venue closures in place because of the pandemic have provided a window in which to sort this all out. However, with many tours organised six months or a year in advance, said Annetts, there isn’t much time left, assuming COVID restrictions start to lift at some point this year.

“Musicians are already thinking, in quite desperate terms, about whether they have a career left or whether they are going to have to retrain in some other capacity”, she said. Or, as another creative industry rep giving evidence – lighting designer Paule Constable – put it, they are “having to make a choice about whether [they’re] British or a musician”.

To address this, Annetts went on, securing an EU-wide agreement on visa-free touring needs to be urgently discussed with the European Commission. Meanwhile, talks should also begin with any key individual EU member states that currently require touring artists to secure travel permits or equipment carnets, in a bid to remove that bureaucracy before COVID rules change.

“I would ask the minister to please, please, please show leadership and put in place a visa waiver agreement”, she said. “That is really straightforward. Loads of countries have one with the EU, and it would deal with one of the very serious problems around visas immediately”.

As for the talks with individual member states, Annetts added “we are not suggesting that the government enter into bilateral agreements with all 27 [EU members]. What we are urging them to do, in addition to the visa waiver agreement, is pick out the top five or six EU countries and negotiate bilateral agreements with those key partners”.

Dinenage was more optimistic about the latter option, later stating that overcoming the work permit issue would mean that visas were no longer a problem anyway. And to that end, she added, “we will use every power in our arsenal to engage with bilateral partners to find ways to make life easier for those in the creative industries to be able to continue to work and tour in countries across the EU”.

“I think an EU-wide solution is going to be very complicated, because we have just spent many years negotiating the trade and co‑operation agreement, and there is not any appetite to re-open that”, she said. “Having said that, I am sure those negotiations will continue: the Chancellor Of The Duchy Of Lancaster met last week with his EU counterpart, and those conversations will always be ongoing”.

“The more likely success route is through negotiations with individual member states, not least because the biggest issue here is the work permit issue”, she went on. “That is very much within the gift of the individual member states, which is why we would be targeting our work there, and specifically at those that seem to have some of the most problematic systems in place … France seems to be very straightforward, but Spain is very much less so”.

Given it’s the bilateral agreements that Dinenage seems to think are a more realistic way of solving the big old post-Brexit touring problem in the relatively short term, the industry – and its supporters in Parliament – are obviously keen to know how many bilateral talks are currently underway. “To my knowledge … there are no current negotiations taking place”, Dinenage said. But “there may be informal conversations happening”.

Annetts said that there was also still a lack of clarity about the need for carnets to transport instruments between countries, which could add hundreds of pounds more to touring costs for an individual instrument. “Frankly, I just do not understand why [tax authority] HMRC cannot give us definitive advice on carnets”, she said. “This is an issue that has been going on since 2018. Surely it cannot be beyond their capability to read the documents and give us cast-iron advice?”

This was one thing Dinenage was able to answer, saying that HMRC had now provided that advice. Carnets will not be required for “portable musical instruments” being transported between the UK and EU. Although they will be for anything transported as freight. But so as long as a musician can carry an instrument as hand luggage, it appears that they will not incur extra costs.

Dinenage and Jones were also asked about financial support for the music industry as it tackles the post-Brexit shambles – noting that the far smaller seafood export industry has already been given a £23 million bailout. Initially, Dinenage pointed to existing schemes, such as the Music Export Growth Scheme. Pushed further, Jones said, “we are absolutely looking at our options” on further support.

You can watch the full two hour hearing here. Although if you just want to know what one of Caroline Dinenage’s “greatest regrets” is, I’ll save you the effort and just tell you now. It’s not yet seeing the musical ‘Hamilton’.