Sir Elton John has called for urgent action to enable British musicians to tour in Europe, as culture secretary Oliver Dowden came under fire over a “misleading” statement saying that 19 countries were offering visa and work permit-free access.
A message issued on Wednesday by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said that the access had been confirmed in discussions with EU states aimed at allowing “the UK’s fantastic performers and other creative professionals to be able to tour abroad easily” after Brexit.
But bodies representing musicians told The Independent that no new deals had in fact been negotiated, and the DCMS was simply listing arrangements already in place.
Some of the 19 countries listed by the DCMS were offering conditions far less generous than the 90 days’ entry during a 180-day period which is the norm for visa-free travel to EU nations, they said.
Rock superstar Elton said that his excitement at an apparent breakthrough “soon turned to disappointment, after realising it seems to be just a rehash of what we already know”.
He added: “There needs to be far more clarity on exactly what progress has been made.
“There is a small window of opportunity to get this right to ensure the next generation of musicians and emerging artists have the ability to tour.
“Speed is of the utmost importance. We need to sustain momentum to enforce change. There must be solutions, short and long-term, or we risk losing future generations of world-beating talent.”
The Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) wrote to Mr Dowden asking him to clarify precisely what kinds of work are allowed visa and permit-free in each of the countries, warning that he risks “seriously misleading musicians and others who are preparing to travel to Europe for work”.
And the announcement was branded “shameful” by Labour MP Harriet Harman who told Mr Dowden: “Assertions that the government has achieved change if it hasn’t simply further serve to demoralise a sector which is so important for this country.”
The ISM released new legal advice from a leading QC suggesting that the government’s failure to negotiate a visa waiver agreement (VWA) for travelling performers with the EU as a whole was a “matter of political will”, rather than practical or legal barriers as the DCMS argues.
Musicians and other performers have faced massive new bureaucratic and cost hurdles to conduct tours in European countries as a result of Brexit.
And there was fury that the government failed to agree a 90-day touring visa on offer from Brussels as part of Boris Johnson’s Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
A parliamentary petition backed by stars including folk singer Laura Marling and Charlatans frontman Tim Burgess was signed by more than 285,000 people.
Musicians’ Union general secretary Horace Trubridge said Wednesday’s announcement contained “nothing new” and simply replicated lists drawn up by industry bodies as long ago as January.
He told The Independent that even in the 19 countries offering some level of visa-free touring – which include France, Germany and Ireland – it was “far from simple” for performers to work because requirements vary from state to state.
Tours still face huge problems with issues like new customs levies on merchandising items like T-shirts, the requirement for “carnet” certificates for each piece of kit and “cabotage” rules which mean that the same van and driver cannot be used for transporting equipment between more than three gigs in a row, he said.
The converted vans which typically carry a group’s personnel in the front and its kit in the back are not even covered by the TCA, making it effectively impossible to use them on European tours.
And matters are even worse in the eight countries with no visa waivers, such as Spain, where a DJ can face paperwork bills of as much as £600 to play a single show.
“We think that the government is at least heading in the right direction by acknowledging these things are problems,” said Mr Trubridge. “But this week’s announcement doesn’t represent any progress at all.”
The ISM said that among the 19 countries listed by the DCMS were Austria, which grants an exemption from work permits if employed for one day, or four weeks within an overall production, Poland, which allows only 30 days in a year and Sweden, where the exemption is just 14 days. Belgium allows a work permit exemption for up to 21 days per quarter for “artists of international renown” in the Flanders area only.
ISM chief executive Deborah Annetts said: “Our touring musicians deserve better than misleading statements from government, when many have serious concerns for their future careers and livelihoods.”
Ms Annetts said the government’s refusal to open discussions on a VWA for touring performers “harms not just the UK creative industries but also the UK economy”, with music alone generating £5.8bn and the creative industries as a whole £116bn a year.
She was backed by world renowned mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly, who called on Boris Johnson’s Brexit negotiator Lord Frost immediately to begin talks on an agreement.
“The legal advice presented by the ISM makes it crystal clear that a work Visa Waiver Agreement is entirely possible to negotiate and to obtain,” said Dame Sarah. “To ignore will be seen as deliberate obstruction and wilful further destruction of the music industry.
It is essential for musicians, actors, business persons and others whose livelihoods are inextricably woven into the fabric of life in Europe be allowed to resume work.”
Greg Parmley, of the live music industry body LIVE, said: “While we are grateful for the government for clarifying the pre-existing arrangements on travel to a number of EU countries, there is nothing new in their latest announcement and we are still some way from visa-free travel in the EU.
“There are no new ‘frictionless’ agreements and in reality, this is only a very small piece in a much bigger touring puzzle, and substantial financial and bureaucratic barriers remain that disproportionately disadvantage smaller and emerging artists.”
A government spokesperson said: “We have spoken to every member state and 19 have confirmed musicians and performers do not require visas or work permits for short-term tours.
”The duration of visa and work permit-free touring varies from member state to member state, and for many, including France and Germany, it is for up to three months. Travellers should check what requirements they need to fulfil with the EU member state they are travelling to, and we are working with member states to ensure they have in place clear guidance.