EU blames UK government for end to visa-free touring for musicians, UK ministers blame the EU

Brexit. For those not overly familiar with the whole thing, it is basically the decision made by the UK to leave the European Union trading bloc. Decided by a referendum in 2016, the UK only left the EU after a four year “transition period” at the end of 2020, with a last minute deal coming into play that covered various aspects of trade that are far too complex to go into here. Yet crucially for musicians, a key point in Brexit was ending “free movement” a system whereby anyone was free to travel, work, and live in various EU states without the need for visas. This has come as quite a blow to British touring musicians, who now face the prospect of visas for EU tours, and both sides are now arguing over who was responsible, as the EU blames the UK, and the UK blames the EU.

Now it must be noted that the UK was never in the Schengen free-travel zone, so anyone entering EU states from the UK still had to show their passport, and most EU states required that people staying for longer periods to live/work had to show proof of a job/savings, a place to live, medical insurance, etc, as anyone who’s done a season in Ibiza and queued for hours in the scorching heat to get their NIE will testify. These new rules however mean that if you’re a British citizen doing short stays in EU countries, for example one gig a night across seven countries, you will now need a visa do to so, and crucially truck drivers carrying equipment will now need to return to the UK after visiting just two member states.

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So who will this affect? Well the EU deal does say British musicians can tour in Europe for up to 90 days in any 180 day period, however individual states now have the right to impose visa and carnet restrictions on people and equipment respectively. France, the Netherlands, and Austria for example are two countries where it will be business as usual, with some like Belgium having exceptions for “artists of international renown”, however Germany and Spain will now require extra visas, which crucially for the dance music industry could hit Ibiza hard – it isn’t just DJs who hit up the White Isle every season, many major nights are crewed by British companies using British staff and equipment.

For established touring DJs this is unlikely to be a major issue – anyone with a reputable booking agent will be more than used to dealing with visas and work permits for non-EU travel anyway, and the sort of fees even mid-range DJs get these days mean any costs will be negligible. However, like with many of these situations, it’s the little guys who’ll get hit the most. An independent DJ who has secured bookings at say, five clubs in five countries, may need five visas and the cost and paperwork involved will stack up. Four guys in band travelling across Europe with their equipment in the back might find they simply cannot tour at all.

So who is to blame? The issue is, like everything with the Brexit trade deal, complex and confusing to a laymen, with little transparency from both sides over what exactly was discussed, and who gave way to who. Back to the “free movement” issue – it was a key part of Brexit that Britain would no longer be part of this arrangement, ostensibly to make it easier for non-EU citizens to move to the UK (which largely does seem to have borne out), but seriously affecting the rights of EU citizens who wish to move to the UK for seasonal work, notably farm workers. Some have noted that with the many people from many industries affected, it would have been unfair to single out musicians for special treatment, but organisers of a petition asking the British government to re-negotiate these terms with the EU, have pointed out British music, and indeed film, TV, and sport, all of which are also affected, are a key part of our economy and a “free cultural work permit” is highly beneficial to both the UK and the EU.

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The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has stated that the EU blames the UK government, stating “we made fairly ambitious proposals in terms of mobility, including for specific categories such as journalists, performers, musicians and others. But you need to be two to make a deal.” while the British government, including Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, and Minister of State for Digital & Culture Caroline Dinenage, have stated the EU simply refused this request. It would seem given the complexity of the deal and the many other issues at play, this was a case of both sides simply being unwilling to bow to each other based on larger issues, notably in this case freedom of movement.

How this will play out in future remains to be seen, with the new restrictions currently having very little effect due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic effectively meaning no tours are happening at the moment. Crucially the deal will make no difference to EU musicians looking to tour in the UK, with the British government already stating that EU musicians are still free to tour in the UK without the need for visas, so it’s interesting that the EU blames this on outside sources. With touring still a few months away at least as vaccinations continue to roll out, there is hopefully time for both sides to come to a reciprocal arrangement. Meanwhile, various artists and industry figures have written an open letter calling for the British government to do more work on this, though for now it unfortunately seems their request is being ignored.

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