UK government rejects 'musician passports' as stars attack 'shameful' touring deal

Minister says UK is not pursuing a touring waiver, as stars including Elton John and Sting say musicians ‘shamefully failed’ by Brexit

The UK government will not pursue a waiver scheme that would allow British musicians to tour the EU without the need for visas, customs waivers and work permits for each individual member state.

The announcement comes as more than 100 artists including Sting, Bob Geldof and Elton John have signed an open letter published in the Times on Wednesday, calling on the government to negotiate paperwork-free travel for British musicians touring in Europe. The signatories say musicians have been “shamefully failed” by the government’s Brexit deal with the EU.

Speaking at parliamentary questions on Tuesday, the digital and culture minister, Caroline Dinenage, said “the door is open” for future negotiations between the UK and EU regarding touring – in which both sides have blamed the other for rejecting their respective proposals – but that any potential solution “wouldn’t be about a waiver but about facilitation”.

The Musicians’ Union (MU) has been lobbying for the creation of a “musicians’ passport” that would last at least two years, cost nothing or very little, encompass all EU member states, prevent any requirement for carnets or other permits, and cover road crew, technicians and other necessary staff to facilitate touring. A petition supporting the idea has reached 113,500 signatures.

Dinenage’s comments suggest the government is not pursuing the passport scheme despite repeatedly stating it is acting in accordance with industry wishes. A spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport declined repeat requests for clarification.

The deputy general secretary of the Musicians’ Union, Naomi Pohl, said: “We have always had cross-party support for some form of exemption or special arrangement to facilitate musicians and crew touring in the EU post-Brexit. It seems unlikely that the musicians’ passport we’ve lobbied for will materialise at this stage but we are still keen to work with the UK government on a supplementary agreement that could work for our members and the crew and organisations they work with.”

A DCMS spokesperson said the government would look at whether it could work with EU member states to find ways to make life easier for those working in the creative industries in their respective countries.

At parliamentary questions, Dinenage reiterated the government’s claim that the EU rejected a “tailored deal” that would have allowed musicians and support staff to tour the EU with ease, which the EU has said was not fit for purpose. She said the EU made a proposal that would only have covered “ad hoc” performances, which she said did not facilitate touring, and which did not include technical and support staff.

An EU official told the Guardian the UK had turned down its standard proposal of 90 days’ work in a 180-day period at the discussion table on mobility. This proposal traditionally covers musicians, sports people and journalists but could have been expanded to include technical staff had the UK been willing to negotiate on freedom of movement, the official said.

“Would we have had an issue with it? Not necessarily. We were proposing our standard list [of exemptions]. If we had begun discussions in [mobility], maybe that would have been different. But the UK refused to engage in our discussions at all. That’s the most important point.”

Roadies for Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band pictured in 2003.
Roadies for Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band pictured in 2003. Photograph: Stefan M Prager/Redferns

The UK had also misinterpreted the meaning of “ad hoc”, the official added. The term is standard wording in its visa agreements, used to “differentiate from the situation of being permanently established somewhere”.

Under such an ad hoc arrangement, a British footballer could “play some games in the EU but could not come and play permanently for a club in the EU”, they said. Under its original proposal, they said that touring would remain possible as long as artists worked no more than 90 out of 180 days.

A DCMS spokesperson told the Guardian it stood by its statement that the EU’s offer would not have worked for touring musicians, but offered no additional detail.

At parliamentary questions, Dinenage promised that the government was committed to providing “clarity” for British musicians wishing to tour the EU and making the issue of negotiating working in individual member states “as easy and straightforward as possible”.

But personnel from Britain’s world-leading touring infrastructure say they have been left in the dark regarding the complex logistics of touring the EU, despite actively seeking clarification from the government on their business activity once coronavirus restrictions lift and touring restarts.

Christiaan Munro, the director of the British merchandising company Sandbag, said he had recently asked HMRC about the logistics of moving products from the UK to the EU when touring became possible again. “Nobody can actually tell me how much it will cost to import goods into France, saying ‘you need to get in touch with the country you’re reporting to’, which is rather frustrating,” he said.

Two Vans for Bands vehicles donated to the Royal Berkshire hospital for use of medical staff during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Two Vans for Bands vehicles donated to the Royal Berkshire hospital for use of medical staff during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photograph: Warren Little/Getty Images

Prior to the Brexit trade agreement, artists visiting the non-EU countries Switzerland and Norway during the course of a European tour would pay sales tax in advance to cover the prospective sale of all merchandise carried, and reclaim any disparity after the fact. Whether this would now be the case for UK tours visiting all EU states, Munro said: “Nobody can tell us how it’s going to work. The freight companies are still feeling the waters. It doesn’t help that the agreement was passed into law four days after being agreed so no one has any idea.”

Tarrant Anderson, the director of touring transport company Vans for Bands, said haulage and trucking companies and industry bodies were still seeking clarity on the situation regarding cabotage, which states that hauliers leaving the UK can make two journeys within the EU in a seven-day period before returning home, which would severely impede touring and threaten the UK’s leading role as a provider of touring infrastructure.

“The potential ramifications are absolutely huge,” said Anderson. “Because everything is so uncertain, we may end up in a situation where once live music can happen, this situation where the UK has really been the dominant force in EU touring may just stop.”

Historically, said Anderson, international artists have “hubbed” into the UK for EU tours thanks to the high quality of its transport, staging, lighting and sound operations. If cabotage – the transport of goods or passengers between two places in the same country by a transport operator from another country – remains in place, “they’re likely to stop doing that and start hubbing in through Germany or France because it’s much easier to begin in those territories”.

The result, he said, may be Britain’s leading touring companies partnering with EU businesses or moving out of the UK entirely, a prospect he had considered.

Emma Edgar, an Irish tour manager for bands including Hot Chip, Wolf Alice and Everything Everything, said there “was no clear guidance” on whether days spent driving through several EU countries en route to a gig in another country would count against the current 30-day limit for artists to work in the EU, further restricting their capacity to perform.

Many interviewees welcomed the coronavirus pandemic putting a delay between the trade agreement becoming law and the realistic recommencement of touring. “Hopefully when we do go back they will realise it is unworkable,” said Edgar.

“We don’t need clarity,” said the MU’s Pohl. “We need a deal. Even if we get clarity, it’s still going to be a complete nightmare.”

Sir Simon Rattle conducting in 2019.
Sir Simon Rattle conducting in 2019. Photograph: Pedro Puente/EPA

The open letter in the Times was also signed by Liam Gallagher, Joss Stone and Bryan May. Among the signatories was Roger Daltrey, who was a prominent supporter of Brexit, and Sir Simon Rattle, who announced this week that he had applied for German citizenship. It was coordinated by the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM).

It said: “The reality is that British musicians, dancers, actors and their support staff have been shamefully failed by their government.

“The deal done with the EU has a gaping hole where the promised free movement for musicians should be. Everyone on a European music tour will now need costly work permits for many countries they visit and a mountain of paperwork for their equipment.”

On Tuesday the ISM announced it was launching a visa and work permit advice service in partnership with Viva La Visa.

ISM’s chief executive, Deborah Annetts, said: “We recognise the significant need for clear advice for our members who are working in the EU. International touring represents an essential part of many musicians’ livelihoods, with 44% of musicians earning up to half of their income in the EU before the pandemic.”

Additional reporting by Damien Gayle


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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