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Calls for clarity and resolution over post-Brexit touring bureaucracy continue as UK government concedes the EU did offer a solution

By | Published on Friday 15 January 2021


Despite previous repeated denials, the UK government has now admitted that the European Union did make a proposal to allow visa-free touring for musicians around Europe post-Brexit, which negotiators on the British side rejected.

The admission has increased calls in the music community for clarity on what was discussed regarding touring while the UK/EU post-Brexit trade deal was being negotiated. Though, of course, the real priority remains getting UK and EU officials back to the negotiating table to try to get a system in place for visa-free touring before COVID restrictions across Europe start to wind down.

The music industry was quick to criticise the last minute trade deal when it was published last month because it does not include a provision guaranteeing visa-free travel for UK musicians touring Europe, or EU musicians touring the UK.

The lack of such a provision means that 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.

This was despite assurances during the Brexit negotiations that – providing some sort of trade deal could be agreed – musicians would not face new restrictions when touring Europe once the UK had left the EU.

Facing all that criticism, the UK government was quick to blame EU officials, telling reporters – and then Parliament – that British ministers had made a proposal to ensure visa-free travel for touring musicians, but that negotiators on the Brussels side knocked it back.

Sources in the EU then told The Independent that, in fact, it had been UK negotiators that knocked back a proposal from the EU. UK culture minister Oliver Dowden then insisted to NME that that wasn’t true, and that it was definitely EU officials who rejected a UK plan. He added: “I’m afraid it was the EU letting down music on both sides of the Channel – not us”.

However, the EU has also stood by its claims in this domain. The main negotiator on the EU side, Michael Barnier, was asked about this particular dispute during a briefing with reporters earlier this week.

According to the FT, he said that the EU had definitely proposed special travel rights for musicians as well as journalists and other artists, but that the UK had chosen not to take up the offer. He added: “I very much regretted the fact that, when it comes to mobility between the two sides, that the British didn’t display any greater ambition. We had a number of initial proposals on this”.

As the blame game continued to go through the motions, a spokesperson for Number Ten Downing Street yesterday conceded that the EU had made a proposal regarding visa-free travel for musicians which the UK did indeed reject. According to The Independent: “The offer ‘fell short’ of what was required, but a source has said the reason was a fear it involved travel rights that undermined the aims of Brexit”.

That source also seemed to confirm what has seemed likely throughout this spat, which is that both the EU and the UK made different proposals for how visa-free travel for touring musicians might be achieved, with both sides rejecting the other’s plan. The main disagreement was seemingly how long a musician should be able to spend in a country without needing any travel permit or equipment carnet. That means both sides are technically correct to say the other rejected a proposal.

But none of that helps UK musicians who, post-COVID, may still not be able to tour Europe because of the cost and hassle of navigating the entry requirements of each EU member state.

Commenting on the latest developments, Deborah Annetts, CEO of the Incorporated Society Of Musicians, said: “We are pleased to finally get clarity that there was an EU proposal to the UK during the Brexit negotiations that would have allowed permit-free tours by musicians. It is now essential for the government to deliver on its commitment to frictionless work travel by negotiating a new reciprocal agreement, that allows performers to tour in Europe freely for up to 90 days”.

Prime Minister ‘Boris’ Johnson agreed in Parliament this week to convene a specific meeting to address this issue, responding to comments made by Kevin Brennan MP during Prime Minister’s Questions. Noting that, the General Secretary of the Musicians Union, Horace Trubridge, has said he looks forward to getting an update on the outcome of that meeting, stressing that an urgent solution is needed.

In a way, the COVID pandemic has mitigated the short-term impact of the new post-Brexit bureaucracy for touring artists, because touring is off the table anyway. But at the same time, the negative impact of the pandemic on the music community makes it even more important that visa-free touring of the EU is possible for British musicians as soon as COVID restrictions start to lift.

In a letter to Johnson, Trubridge wrote: “We were delighted to hear your answer to Kevin Brennan’s question about touring musicians during Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday. As Kevin set out, there is an urgent need for a reciprocal work-permit-free deal for touring musicians and performers, and our members were very disappointed not to see this in the Brexit deal”.

“It is overwhelmingly in Britain’s economic and cultural interest to negotiate this with the EU as soon as possible so that musicians are able to go back to work as soon as coronavirus restrictions ease”, he went on. “Our industry has been incredibly badly hit by the COVID-19 crisis and if our members are also restricted by additional costs and red tape on touring once things start to go back to normal, we will see a real downturn in what is a unique British success story: music”.

“We therefore look forward to the outcome of the meeting that you agreed to arranging”, he concluded.