Government ignorance of the arts is putting British musicians’ livelihoods at risk, Harriet Harman has argued, in a call for an end to the post-Brexit bureaucracy for musicians looking to tour in the EU.
The Labour MP today unveils a 10-point plan of proposed measures, backed by industry bodies such as the Musicians’ Union, UK Music and the Incorporated Society of Musicians, that would allow UK musicians to tour Europe without the need for visas and work permits – and the same for EU musicians visiting the UK – after a period of what she calls “unnerving silence” on the issue from the government.
In January, the UK and the EU engaged in a protracted blame game regarding the lack of an arrangement to allow musicians to work freely across the continent. The government has said that making exemptions for musicians would go against its mandate to end freedom of movement, and said the door is open if the EU wishes to renegotiate.
In February, a House of Commons survey of musicians who signed a petition calling for visa-free touring found that 81% of respondents said they were now likely to stop touring Europe. In addition, 60% said they were considering a change in career.
Harman told the Guardian that the government’s position on freedom of movement meant they had “boxed themselves into a corner”. There was “no time to waste” on the issue, she said: if the government didn’t act now, “nothing is going to happen on this [issue] except that the shutters will come down”.
If touring Europe became prohibitively expensive, orchestras and opera houses would be forced to ask the government to cover financial losses, she said, and argued that the government needs to negotiate new agreements with EU countries, prioritising important touring nations such as Spain, Italy and Portugal, which do not offer cultural exemptions for work permits.
Exceptions should be made for musicians because their work isn’t viable in any other forums, she said. “The idea that this is the thin edge of the wedge [on freedom of movement] shouldn’t stop the government doing what makes sense and what is necessary.”
She likened the idea to the so-called “elite” visa announced at the 2021 budget, which makes it easier for researchers, engineers and scientists to come to the UK.
Harman called for the extension of furlough and self-employed support for the music sector until the Europe issue was resolved “in recognition of the fact that because the government hasn’t succeeded so far, people are losing a great chunk of their income”.
The issues now facing the UK music industry have been evident since before the Brexit vote in 2016. Harman described the government failure to address these issues as multifaceted. She accused the government of “ignorance” regarding the financial contribution of the British music industry – valued at £5.8bn in 2019 – and additionally music tourism.
Complacency was also to blame, she said. “There’s the assumption that somehow it’s going to be perfectly all right because [musicians] always have been, and they’re so successful so they’ll be fine. And also partly: oh well, it’s just a few middle-class people. Which is completely wrong.
“The financial necessity of [touring] being part of the business model of UK musical activity is absolutely beyond doubt. But there are also artistic issues because music thrives when there’s a cultural interchange and artists are able to collaborate. And that generates even more artistic creativity.”
Harman proposed the creation of a British Music Export office and the appointment of a minister to lead on UK-EU negotiations and coordinate support for musicians dealing with visas and other obstacles until the matter is resolved.
“At the moment there doesn’t seem to be any plan to do anything because we don’t know who it is we’re all supposed to be rallying behind,” said Harman. “It doesn’t seem as if anybody’s taking responsibility.”
Most European countries have a designated music export office. That the UK doesn’t is down to “a failure” to recognise that it is a necessity, said Harman.
“DCMS [department for culture, media and sport] needs to be flexing its muscles and recognising the power of these sectors and the importance of public policy in them,” she said.
In order for the sector to lobby in its own interests, the government must publish correspondence and relevant information relating to previous negotiations with the EU on the matter, said Harman.
Caroline Dinenage, minister for digital and culture, previously said the government rejected EU proposals on touring because they would only cover “ad-hoc” performances, which it interpreted as not inclusive of touring. EU officials told the Guardian that “ad hoc” was standard language to differentiate from permanent arrangements, and would have facilitated touring.
It wasn’t that the industry was looking to point the finger, said Harman. “ I don’t think the government should be defensive, even if the truth is that they have cocked it up. The sector just wants to sort it out and to help.”
Harman, MP for Camberwell and Peckham, added: “I was not surprised to see that it’s actually a constituency issue for me. Fishing isn’t. But musicians are.”