Brexit for Musicians: Passport to Nowhere

As the post-Brexit dust begins to settle, UK artists are lobbying for an EU-wide “musician’s passport”, allowing them to travel and work free of restrictions across Europe. It’s a lovely idea. But is it a realistic prospect?

Opinion seems divided over how this negotiation might take place. A petition to Parliament created by Tim Brennan has just passed 230,000 signatures, and asks the UK government “to negotiate a free cultural work permit that gives us visa free travel throughout the 27 EU states for music touring professionals, bands, musicians, artists, TV and sports celebrities that tour the EU to perform shows and events & Carnet exception for touring equipment.” Other parties have suggested approaching the EU directly in order to secure a similar arrangement, presumably as a unilateral gift.

Let’s take the latter suggestion first. Just as many Brexit supporters are guilty of mindlessly demonising the EU, those on the opposite side of the debate often make the equivalent error of portraying the European Union as some sort of benevolent all-powerful omnipresent entity. Let us appeal to this deity, that He may solve all our problems at a miraculous stroke.

The reality is quite different, and Remainers – correction / update, Rejoiners – have even less excuse than anyone else for overlooking it. The EU exists to further the interests of its member states. It has been very clear over the course of the Brexit negotiations that protecting the integrity of the Single Market is the EU’s overriding priority, and that the “Four Freedoms” – of goods, capital, services, and people – are indivisible as far as they’re concerned. When the UK decided that abolishing free movement of persons was a “red line” for them, the direct consequence of that was that none of the other freedoms would be available in its entirety either.

Furthermore, as far as I’m aware, no other third country has any such arrangement with the EU. It may come as a surprise that EU member states retain the right to negotiate work permit arrangements individually with nations outside the EU. Sovereign nations after all, it seems. While many third countries have agreements for visa-free entry to and movement throughout the Schengen area, if we’re asking for an open-ended EU-wide work permit, we are suggesting the EU extend its powers considerably, and persuade its members to accept an entirely new kind of arrangement, for the benefit of a country which is not exactly top of its Christmas card list.

We also need to appreciate that it would require the agreement of all 27 member states, and therefore to think about it from each point of view. It’s not clear what, for example, a Polish, Danish or Estonian musician would gain from having to compete with British artists for jobs in their countries, with no reciprocal access to the UK market.

I’m not saying that the EU wouldn’t agree to all of this, but it’s hard to see why they’d be inclined to go to the trouble without getting something in return. Otherwise it seems as much of a Utopian pipe-dream as the idea of “associate citizenship” of the EU for anyone in the UK who wants it. Lovely idea, but pie-in-the-sky unless any reciprocal benefit for EU citizens was included in the deal.

UPDATE: The Independent published an article a few minutes after I finalised this one, quoting “an EU source” who claims with regard to the Brexit negotiations, “It is usually in our agreements with third countries, that visas are not required for musicians. We tried to include it, but the UK said no.” It’s really not clear what was on offer here – the article goes on to claim that “countries as contrasting as the United States and Saudi Arabia enjoy a permit-free exemption for performers in their deals with the EU, which offers the arrangement as “standard”.” If they mean work permits, this is simply not true, as far as I can tell from several conversations with experienced non-EU artists. There are many countries which have arranged visa-free entry to and travel across the Schengen area; and then many countries within Schengen where work permits are not required for short-term contracts. But the two remain separate issues, and work permit arrangements are a matter for the individual member nations – and so, for example, possessing a German work permit does not give you the right to work in Spain, even when your Schengen visa allows you to travel there. As it stands, the article is confusing and requires clarification on several important points.

FURTHER UPDATE: The organisation Wales For Europe has posted a message from Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt with further details of the EU offer, helpfully pointing us to page 354 of the draft agreement published by the EU in March 2020. That draft text suggests that “the category of persons travelling for the purpose of carrying out a paid activity… should not cover… sportspersons or artists performing an activity on an ad-hoc basis”. The question remains whether the EU could have got that past every one of its member states without exceptions and opt-outs, and of which other trade agreements apply this “standard approach” – I’ve been asking around and still can’t find any, so please do get in touch if you have a verifiable example, particularly if you’re a musician from outside the EU who benefits from such an arrangement. But as it stands in the March text, it’s unarguably a generous offer. Verhofstadt goes on to claim that the UK then revisited the issue when services were being negotiated, with a counter-proposal which the EU in turn rejected, which seems to tally with the version of events presented by various UK ministers. Other than the predictable “our offer was better than yours” sniping, the accounts of both sides do seem to be essentially in agreement. In an interview this week with the Financial Times, chief negotiator Michel Barnier broadly reiterates the EU account of the negotiations, but also more significantly warns: “This agreement will not be renegotiated, it now needs to be implemented.”

The Incorporated Society of Musicians has very helpfully compiled a list of short-term EU work permit arrangements for UK musicians, which they’re aiming to keep updated as situations develop and clarify. Ultimately getting all this absolutely right is of course the responsibility of the contracted artist, but it’s a useful starting point at the very least: ISM EU work permit information. There’s a similar list for comparison provided by UK Europe Arts Work: UKEAW work permit information

This brings us to the other suggestion, of lobbying the UK government first. The quid pro quo would have to be to offer the same Freedom of Movement to EU artists in return. That might stand a better chance of providing the EU with the incentive to consider the proposition – presumably we’d be talking about something like a limited mutual right to work permit-free for up to 90 days across the EU/UK, which would certainly simplify life for touring musicians. (I presumed correctly – see further update paragraph above).

But again, a healthy dose of realism is in order. From the current UK government’s point of view, the abolition of Freedom of Movement to and from the UK for EU citizens, and vice versa, is not an unintended consequence of Brexit. In fact, it is for them the fundamental point of the whole process. Having spent years – and in some cases, decades – working towards this goal, and finally having achieved it, how likely are they then to give it up? We might argue that musicians are a special and limited case. But there are many other industries which could make a similar claim.

The politicians currently running the country have spent a long time building this particular wall. They have finally succeeded. I applaud the optimism of those now asking them to immediately remove one of the bricks, but at the very least we should appreciate the magnitude of what they’re asking the government to do.

If the object of this exercise is genuinely to persuade the government rather than merely howl into the wind, then it might be better to make the argument in their terms, not ours. They are keen to demonstrate that the UK is now an “independent, sovereign nation”. It’s not entirely clear what that means in practice. So why not provide them with a minimum-effort opportunity to put some meat on those very bare bones? France has recently unilaterally decided that UK artists will be allowed to work there permit-free for up to three months. The UK could reciprocate that arrangement for French artists here, and make it clear that the same was on offer to other countries on a case-by-case, bilateral basis.

That approach would also have the benefit, to UK artists, of potentially balancing up the individual arrangements. To consider the one pre-existing example, British and Irish workers have retained the reciprocal right to live and work in each other’s countries. Even with my Irish citizen’s hat on, there’s no question that the benefit to Irish musicians of this arrangement is currently greater, since the UK market is far larger. The one wafer-thin benefit of Brexit to UK musicians is that their EU counterparts will face some red-tape barriers when competing with them for UK jobs. At a time when British artists need those home jobs more than ever, they might take a moment to consider whether opening the UK back up to the EU in its entirety is really in their best interests right now. If they decide that it is, I congratulate them on their generosity – but they shouldn’t kid themselves that it’s all gain at no cost. The arrangement will have to work both ways if it is to work at all.

Come to think of it, bilateral talks would also have the advantage of not requiring UK and EU negotiators to lock horns again – after the last few months, they could hardly be blamed for being thoroughly sick of the sight of each other. In practice, sorting out the fine detail of aspects like reciprocal tax agreements with individual nations might be of more immediate and practical benefit to UK citizens working abroad. And without question, the most urgent issue for UK musicians in the short term is to sort out the chaos and confusion surrounding the new working arrangements, which is already causing problems for those travelling to Europe to work.

To be blunt, the campaign for an EU-wide passport has a strong sense of denial about it, of trying to turn back the clock for our little bubble and pretend Brexit never happened. There is no “full access to the Single Market”, as we have so often pointed out to Leave campaigners, short of full EU or EEA membership, which are off the table for the time being. While the genuine grief and mourning is entirely understandable, at some point we need to face up to where we are. The 2016 referendum will always have serious questions over its legal and constitutional legitimacy. But while we were denied the common-sense right to a further confirmatory referendum, we did have two General Elections where we could have reversed the result had we, as an electorate, chosen to make that our top priority. In England and Wales, we declined the opportunity, and we now have to live with the consequences of that collective decision.

In general there’s no love lost between UK artists and their government – there’s a gaping chasm in sentiment and world-view. But if British musicians are serious about making progress towards opening the EU market back up, they’ll now need to swallow hard and take a small step towards understanding the intellectual territory of hardcore Leave campaigners. Only by doing so will they come up with the proposals and language necessary to seize the government’s attention.

The alternative is to sit tight and grumble for a few years in the hope that the government’s mind-set, or the government itself, changes between now and the scheduled review of the Brexit agreement in 2024. I’m not sure most of us can afford to wait that long.

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All content Copyright © Paul Carey Jones 2010-2021. Paul Carey Jones is Welsh and also Irish. He used to be an opera singer back when that was a thing, and is now sometimes an opera singer again, as well as writing things. His first book, based on his hit 'Coronaclassical' blog series, is now on sale worldwide: - You can contact him via comments here or at:
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8 Responses to Brexit for Musicians: Passport to Nowhere

  1. Susan Tomes says:

    Thank you for this helpful and illuminating summary of the situation. I feel I now have a better understanding of some of the thorny issues involved.

  2. RexOper says:

    Agree with all your comments Paul, the deal is done, it won’t be re-negotiated till 2026, even if there’s will on the UK side, I don’t see the EU wanting to open things up.

    That said, I think there needs to be some soul-searching within the British musical community re their political positioning post 2016. Without naming names, the vast majority of musicians spent their time opposing Corbyn and backing the PV movement. In a parallel to fishermen and the Tories, they have been wallet inspected by Starmer and his cohort on the Labour right and this isn’t stopping (see the ISM today defending Labour voting for the deal).

    Whatever else you may think about JC, he didn’t vote for this deal and would have signed up for a much softer brexit. Some mea culpas wouldn’t go amiss right now.

    • Hi Rex, thanks for the comment. A lot to unpack there. I have to say that, even with the benefit of hindsight, I struggle to see where and when there was ever any realistic non-minimal opportunity either to reverse or mitigate Brexit, given the circumstances, the balance of power, and the personalities involved. We gave it our best shot, but as a nation we remain divided on this, and there’s still a lot of it to play out. As musicians, we’re a bit late to the party – we could have done with lobbying, for realistic concessions and deals which would have helped us in practical terms, rather than protesting for the complete overturn of Brexit, from about this time last year. But in fairness, we’ve had other things on our plate. What’s crucial looking forward is that we deal with where we are now, what’s achievable that would help us in the short term, and then to identify our longer term goals, and think hard about how those can be achieved too. More on this shortly! Thanks again for your thoughts, keep in touch.

      • Rex Oper says:

        Musicians weren’t the only group who pursued overturning brexit over softening it (see for eg Simon Wren Lewis, arguably the most credible centre-left economist in the UK, who argued from 2017 onward that a softer brexit wasn’t politically sustainable). My personal thinking on this has moved considerably. Where I think the apologies are needed is for the vociferous attacks on JC and the stanning of Starmer. The only politicians backing a softer brexit in England today are Labours socialist MPs.

      • Rex Oper says:

        Small point of clarification- the chance for a softer brexit died during the 2017-19 period when the PV campaign hit its high point with its target being corbyn. I don’t think musicians had a chance after Johnson won the election.

  3. Pingback: Brexit for Musicians: What Happened, What Next? | Ranitidine & Tonic

  4. Pingback: Brexit for Musicians: The Norway Option | Ranitidine & Tonic

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