The outgoing director of the Edinburgh International festival has called for the UK’s visa and exports rules to be greatly simplified to allow musicians and artists to travel overseas far more smoothly.
Fergus Linehan, who directs his last international festival next month, said the UK’s post-Brexit visa rules had been a “disaster” for the arts and for artists by stifling collaboration and making it harder for British artists to tour abroad.
In an interview with the Guardian, he urged the UK government to introduce visa-free travel for artists and solve the huge logistical problems affecting companies importing touring equipment into the UK.
He said it was “much more difficult” for Britons to get visas to work abroad than it was for overseas artists to visit the UK, and that freight costs were “crazy just now”. Europeans who once might have applied for British arts jobs were also more hesitant about visas and their right to stay, particularly if they had families, he said.
“Clearly, when musicians go to perform [in another country], they’re not going to set up home. That’s not what it’s about. So visa-free movement for people,” Linehan said. “We’re part of an ecosystem. The idea of discouraging collaboration is a disaster in our industry.
“If there was just one thing, a silver bullet, I would say it would be that.”
Linehan, a Dublin-born theatre director who has previously lived and worked in Australia, is handing over the reins in October to the violinist and Grammy award-winner Nicola Benedetti after running the international festival for eight years.
The second-youngest of the festival’s directors, Benedetti also will have the distinction of being the first woman, the first Scot and the first working musician to run the event since its foundation in 1947, as Europe emerged from the trauma of the second world war.
Linehan said the political crisis over the Northern Ireland protocol, with Boris Johnson’s government threatening to breach international law by rewriting unilaterally a trade deal with the EU, had added greatly to tensions with the UK’s neighbours.
“The goodwill is not there. I do think a lot of these things are not that complex,” he said. “If you take the heat out of the situation and if everything wasn’t an ideological hill that everyone was willing to die on, a lot of this could get sorted out. Just blunt pragmatism, [not] point-scoring at every level.”
Linehan said he was astonished the UK government had not foreseen and planned for the impacts of hard Brexit on the labour market by phasing things in more slowly so UK residents could be trained in many of the jobs routinely taken by migrants.
He said the global crises with migration had become a resonant topic for artists while he was programming this year’s festival. “It just keeps coming out,” he said. One of this festival’s central themes is refuge and cultural exchange, in part because its founder, Rudolf Bing, was a refugee.
One major production will be Jungle Book Reimagined, a reworking of Rudyard Kipling’s classic by the choreographer Akram Khan, where Mowgli is a climate refugee who arrives in a deserted city claimed by wild animals.
Linehan said he expected August’s festivals would produce a “cathartic charge” for audiences and performers, in part because of Brexit and the continuing problems posed by Covid and the Ukraine crisis. “These moments of collective joy, feel like they have a kind of resonance and an importance that is very, very real,” he said.
The surge in costs and labour shortages were internal and logistical challenges which had to be managed, he said, adding the people needed to see the current economic crisis in context: in 1947, there were few hotels in Edinburgh and audiences had very little money.
The banking crash of 2008 wrecked lives and the economy, and the Brexit vote in 2016 was followed by the populist upsurges by Donald Trump in the US, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, he said.
“It’s remarkable how the festivals are so resilient through these particular moments. In moments of great uncertainty we sometimes hang on to the big celebrations, [and] I think Edinburgh in August is strengthened during times of great uncertainty. I don’t think that it feels frivolous or less relevant, because we’re going through all of these things.”