Elton John: Brexit negotiators 'screwed up' deal for British musicians

Singer calls for return to negotiation as touring artists face red tape and new costs, with Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood adding fresh criticism of UK government

Elton John: I learned by touring Europe in the 60s. Young artists need the same chance

Elton John has said that the UK’s Brexit negotiators “screwed up” a deal for British musicians and the broader music industry, and is calling for the government to re-enter negotiations.

Writing in the Guardian, John said: “Either the Brexit negotiators didn’t care about musicians, or didn’t think about them, or weren’t sufficiently prepared. They screwed up. It’s ultimately down to the British government to sort it out: they need to go back and renegotiate.

“The situation we’re currently in is ridiculous. Music is one of Britain’s greatest cultural exports. It’s a £5.8bn industry that got left out of the Brexit trade negotiations when others weren’t.”

His remarks come as pressure increases on the government to negotiate visa-free working arrangements for performers and professionals across the British creative industries. Culture minister Caroline Dinenage is set to face questions as MPs debate the issue on Monday, following a public petition signed by 280,000 people entitled “Seek Europe-wide visa-free work permit for touring professionals and artists”.

Musicians are currently unable to tour Europe due to the coronavirus pandemic, but as soon as they can, they will face new paperwork and costs. Previously, a musician could tour freely throughout the EU, but now must secure a visa or work permit for each country they want to perform in, depending on the rules set by each country. Another cost is a “carnet”, a list of goods such as musical instruments that are allowed to cross borders.

Transport rules known as “cabotage” dictate that UK freight companies can only make two stops in the EU before returning home, making multi-city tours impossible with UK firms; business is likely to be lost to European freight companies who can travel freely between countries.

John described the new rules as “an administrative nightmare that vastly increases the cost of staging a European tour … I don’t want to live in a world where only artists who’ve been going for decades, who’ve already sold millions, can tour properly.”

As well as a long-term solution via renegotiation, he called for the creation of “a support organisation where artists who don’t have the kind of infrastructure that I have around me can access lawyers and accountants, who can help them navigate the current situation. The music industry needs to contribute to this financially.” Current government advice is for musicians to research and fulfil the visa requirements of each country themselves.

John also lamented the potential loss of cultural exchange. “Getting your music across to crowds from a different culture to your own, who don’t necessarily speak the same language as you, just makes you a better musician,” he writes. “As I discovered in the 60s, you can spend months in a rehearsal room painstakingly perfecting your craft and you won’t learn as much about live performance as you do in half an hour trying to win over an unfamiliar audience … you write better songs as a result.”

John has long been a vociferous opponent of Brexit. In 2018, he said the British public “were promised something that was completely ridiculous and wasn’t economically viable”, and doubled down on that criticism a year later, telling a crowd at a Verona concert: “I am a European. I am not a stupid, colonial, imperialist English idiot.” Back on British soil a couple of months later, he softened his stance, saying during a concert in Hove: “We voted to go out, so we must go out … we need to heal [and] talk to each other.”

His criticism of the Brexit deal for musicians follows an open letter he signed in January alongside artists including Sting, Bob Geldof and the pro-Brexit Roger Daltrey, who said the government had “shamefully failed” musicians with the Brexit deal.

Colin Greenwood in 2017.
Colin Greenwood in 2017. Photograph: Doug Peters/Alamy

In an article due to be published in the Guardian on Monday, Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood also criticises the rule changes. “The costs of travel and accommodation are already high, and the extra paperwork and expenses would rise quickly for a touring orchestra,” he writes. “All the incredible staging, sound and lighting companies from the UK that drive lots of the European festivals might find it that much harder to compete with EU alternatives. And the Dutch, German and French technicians we’ve used for decades might find it’s not worth the candle to work here.”

He imagines a case of a solo cellist, “who is going to play in Berlin for a couple of hundred euros, and sees her carnet will cost more than the fee – will the promoter in Berlin think twice about the costs and hassle of booking her rather than an artist from the EU?”

He adds: “It is time for the UK government to admit it didn’t do enough for the creative industries during the Brexit negotiations and look to renegotiate on the provision for touring in Europe.”

In January, Dinenage said “the door is open” for further negotiations with the EU, following numerous exchanges in which both the UK and EU claimed they had made offers regarding the movement of musicians that were rejected by the other. She said any solution “wouldn’t be about a [visa] waiver”.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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