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UK Prime Minister commits to meeting to discuss the post-Brexit visa problem for touring musicians

By | Published on Thursday 14 January 2021


UK Prime Minister ‘Boris’ Johnson has committed to organise a meeting with MPs to discuss the post-Brexit issues facing musicians touring Europe and how those issues might be overcome. And with the PM now taking an active interest in this issue, what can possibly go wrong? There’ll probably be an all out ban on British musicians touring Europe by next Tuesday.

The UK and the EU both continue to blame each other for the lack of any provisions in the post-Brexit UK/EU trade deal to ensure visa-free touring for British artists around Europe.

With no such provisions in place, British musicians seeking to tour the EU must now adhere to the entry rules of each individual country, some of which require artists and their crews to secure travel permits and/or equipment carnets. It’s feared that the extra cost and hassle that involves will make some tours unviable.

Having previously received assurances that, providing a trade deal was agreed, Brexit would not affect musicians in this way, the UK music community was quick to criticise the government as soon as said trade deal was published.

Ministers responded by saying that they’d tried to ensure that touring musicians wouldn’t face any new bureaucracy post-Brexit, but that EU officials had knocked back their proposals. Sources at the EU then told The Independent that this claim was not true, and that – in fact – it was UK officials who knocked back EU proposals that would have ensured artists could still tour Europe visa-free.

That blame game has continued this week. UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden yesterday told NME that there had been lots of speculation and inaccurate reporting on the new visa requirements facing musicians, insisting that the British government “fought to get a good deal for British music precisely because we recognise how valuable this industry is to the country”.

He went on: “Some reports have suggested we turned down a bespoke arrangement from the EU to allow musicians to work and perform across the bloc. In reality, it was the other way round. As negotiations began, we consulted extensively with the sector to find out what they needed from the negotiations. We sought a mutually beneficial agreement that would have allowed performers to continue working and perform across the continent without the need for work permits”.

“Musicians, artists, entertainers and support staff would have been captured through the list of permitted activities for short-term business visitors”, he explained. “This was a straightforward solution for our creative industries which would have benefited all sides. But the EU turned it down, repeatedly. It did not propose and wouldn’t accept a tailored deal for musicians and artists. I’m afraid it was the EU letting down music on both sides of the Channel – not us”.

EU sources have said that the main problem in this domain during the deal negotiations was that the UK government wasn’t willing to offer European artists the same level of visa-free access to the UK as the EU was proposing to offer British artists in Europe, and that any deal needs to be reciprocal.

However, Dowden insisted to the NME that “the UK remains open for musicians to tour here, as it has always been”. Clarifying, he went on: “Artists, musicians and entertainers from the EU don’t need a visa to give performances [or] take part in competitions or promotional activities. If they get paid, they can stay for up to one month, and if they are only claiming expenses or prize money, they can stay for up to six months”.

“Though the situation has changed”, he went on, “we’re trying to make it as straightforward as possible for UK artists to continue putting on performances across the continent. Some EU member states, such as France, already allow musicians from outside the EU to perform in their countries with minimal bureaucracy and those rules will apply to UK musicians as well”.

After NME had published Dowden’s remarks, a spokesperson for the European Commission hit back, again insisting that the lack of an EU-wide visa-free provision for touring artists was the fault of UK ministers.

“The UK has chosen to no longer allow the free movement of EU citizens to the UK”, the spokesperson told NME. “It also refused to include a chapter on mobility in the agreement. These choices inevitably mean that travel between the EU and the UK – including for business purposes – will no longer be as easy as it was while the UK was a member state”.

“The UK refused to include a commitment on visa-free short stays in the Trade And Cooperation Agreement”, the spokesperson went on. “Such types of commitments in the EU’s international agreements are usually accompanied by a joint declaration explicitly excluding certain categories – for example, sportspersons, artists and journalists – from the requirement to have a visa. As a result, it is now up to each member state to determine if a visa is required for short-stay visits for the purpose of carrying out a paid activity. This is fully in line with EU law”.

Although representatives for the music industry have asked for full transparency over exactly what was discussed regarding touring artists when the UK/EU trade deal was negotiated, at the same time the main priority for the music community now is getting UK and EU officials back around the negotiating table. Given that both sides insist that they want a simpler system for UK artists touring the EU, and EU artists touring the UK, industry reps argue that both UK and EU officials should be up for such discussions.

Dowden confirmed in his statement to NME that the UK government’s “door is still open” if the EU is up for negotiating a better system. “The treaty we negotiated has a review clause that allows us to revisit the list of permitted activities for short-term business visitors”, he said, “but we shouldn’t have to wait for that if both sides can agree sooner to do the right thing for our talented artists. I’ll be making that point to my counterparts in Europe and I hope they change their minds”.

It was in a bid to ensure that such negotiations definitely now take place – sooner rather than later – that Kevin Brennan MP yesterday requested that Boris Johnson convene a meeting on the matter.

During Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament, he stated: “There is a real disappointment that a reciprocal work permit free deal for touring musicians and performers has not been agreed with the EU. No one is interested in a blame game, it’s clearly fixable, and in Britain’s economic and cultural interest to do so quickly, but it needs leadership from the top”.

“So will the Prime Minister meet on this with a small group of MPs, including the Conservative Chair of the Culture Select Committee? We are all singing from the same song sheet, will he please say ‘yes’ to the meeting?”.

Johnson responded: “I will of course ensure that there is a proper meeting with the honourable gentleman and his colleagues on this subject, which is extremely important, and I know that our friends in the EU will be wanting to go further to improve things, not just for musicians, but for business travellers of all kinds, because there is a mutual benefit”.

Among those welcoming the commitment of Dowden and Johnson to actively seek to address this issue was David Martin, CEO of the Featured Artists Coalition.

He said last night: “It doesn’t matter to artists or the music industry who said what during the Brexit negotiations. What matters is that the situation is rectified. I am happy to see Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary Of State Oliver Dowden explicitly announce that there is the will within government to find a solution to this impasse”.

“The current rules will see the UK performers subject to 30 different sets of regulations in the EU and EEA, and artists from across Europe subject to one of three modes for entering the UK, which they were not previously required to navigate”, he added. “In both directions, this will add cost and bureaucracy, which is to neither the UK nor the EU’s benefit”.

“I note Mr Dowden’s comments that nothing has changed for European artists entering the UK”, he went on. “I would welcome further clarification on this claim given that European performers now have third-party national status when working in the UK”.

Concluding, Martin stated: “As always, the FAC and our colleagues across the industry are ready to work with Mr Dowden’s department and others in government, to ensure a simple and effective solution is put in place, allowing performers across the whole of Europe to travel easily and ensuring fans across the continent are not disappointed”.