In the House of Lords this week, members had an opportunity to question the government on its progress in solving post-Brexit difficulties experienced by performing artists wishing to work in the EU.
“Embroiled with more red tape than you could shake a stick at”, was the concise summing up by Tim Brennan of the Carry on Touring campaign of the situation still facing UK performing artists wishing to tour in the EU. The issue was raised at the first of an oral questions session in the House of Lords on Monday 21 February, with Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, under-secretary of state at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), sent out to bat for the government.
In November 2020, Howard Goodall issued an eloquent warning of the problems about to hit performing artists. If creative industry professionals were hoping for signs of a breakthrough here – an end, as Brennan puts it, to “the same old rhetoric, ‘We’ve asked the EU and they said no’” – they will have been disappointed, although probably not surprised.
Questions raised on the high touring costs and mountain of red tape
Baroness Bull went straight to the heart of the problem, which is that the huge costs now involved in touring in the EU – up to £16,000 a day – will completely rule it out for many British companies and orchestras. The fact that there has been little progress in negotiating a cabotage exemption with the EU (a waiving of haulage restrictions) is frustrating all in the industry. Given such difficulties, Viscount Stansgate asked what was being done to ensure that youth orchestras could continue to gain experience from touring.
Lord Strasburger said that the costs and the “mountain of red tape” had left what he described as the UK’s second largest industry “high and dry”. Lord Vaizey, also noting that that the creative arts are a huge earner for the UK, asked for DCMS to publish papers detailing what points it’s actually raising with the EU to unblock this situation.
Baroness McIntosh asked what assessment had been done of the impact on individual performers. The classical music industry, she said, is particularly dependent on international reputation-building for its largely freelance workforce. Her own assessment was that UK musicians are now much less likely to be offered work in the EU.
Government responses reveal little progress made
Lord Strasburger put into words what the creative industries are asking for: EU-wide cultural exemptions for visas, work permits and trucking restrictions. If, as he claimed, the Tongan government has managed to reach such an agreement with the EU, why can’t the UK?
EU says no, according to Lord Parkinson; UK proposals to ease travel for UK artists had been turned down at the EU level. Consequently, the UK was now working directly with member states.
However, what he hailed several times as a success – “visa-free travel in 21 member states” – has previously been rejected by professionals in the industry as “misleading … a headline grabber” and even “a disgraceful fib”. Countries still impose varying restrictions on how long a UK artist can actually stay there to work.
It also does nothing to address the basic post-Brexit restriction of residence in the EU to just 90 days out of the previous 180 – applied cumulatively to stays in any of the Schengen area countries – which is very limiting for touring performers. Brennan described the tricky situation of an opera singer with an EU contract exceeding 90 days. The only solution is to fly home every weekend, thus saving two days each time – if that’s enough.
In response to all those raising the issue of red tape, Lord Parkinson’s repeated the same answer: the information is on the government website. But, as Lord Vaizey pointed out, it’s not even all in the same place on the website. And, as Brennan makes clear, it’s all ridiculously complex.
Thirteen months on: “Discussions continue”
Some minor steps forward were mentioned, for example with regard to haulage and the transport of personal musical instruments. But did this session do anything to inspire confidence that the fundamental issues are being addressed? Well, that depends on how reassured you are to hear Lord Parkinson assert, “We’re working on it”, “We’re working with the industry”, “We’re working on touring issues”, “Discussions continue”.
If, as a touring performing artist, you’ve been hearing those words for the last 13 months, who could blame you for not feeling very reassured at all.