Brexit for Musicians: What Happened, What Next?

The debate over an EU “musician’s passport” for UK artists rages on, with much of the focus being on what exactly was on offer during the negotiating process last year.

Leaving aside for a moment the question of how useful those details really are any more, here’s an attempt at piecing together what we know or can reasonably guess. This is based on having spent far more time than I’d ever have wished over the last fortnight reading and listening to statements from the various parties involved, as well as the text of the Deal itself, while applying the filter that politicians of all nationalities and leanings will have a tendency to be economical with the truth, and by definition produce a subjective version of events. As always on these pages, it comes with the caveat that I could be completely wrong about any part or all of this.

If you’re sensible enough not to be interested in the speculative ins and outs of a trade negotiation, feel free to skip straight to Part Two, which should still make sense either way.


The timeline of the negotiations seems to start with the EU including a section in the draft text of an agreement published in March 2020. That text is available online here, and the relevant chunk is on page 354.

“Desiring to ensure a common interpretation, the Parties agree that, for the purposes of this Agreement, the category of persons carrying out a paid activity covers persons entering for the purpose of carrying out a gainful occupation or remunerated activity in the territory of the other Party as an employee or as a service provider. This category should not cover: … sportspersons or artists performing an activity on an ad-hoc basis.”

It seems this was rejected pretty swiftly by the UK. The main reason given by the Government has been that it breached their key manifesto promise to “take back control of our borders” – in other words, that for their liking it provided too much open-ended freedom of movement for a category of not only current EU citizens, but future ones too. Additionally, they have claimed that the definition of “artists” wouldn’t have covered technical and support staff, that the arrangement would still have been subject to potential opt-outs and additional work permit requirements from individual EU member states, and that the definition of “ad-hoc basis” wouldn’t cover most musical activity. The Government claims that, having consulted with the Musicians’ Union and other representative bodies, the proposal would not have met the practical needs of British musicians in full.

Analysis: whether or not those additional objections hold water, they strike you as the sort of thing that could be fixed during a negotiating process – this was the EU’s first draft proposal, after all. The red line was surely the first point, that any version of this proposal would contain far more freedom of movement (for EU citizens coming to the UK) than would be acceptable to this Government, which would explain their summary dismissal of the whole idea without further discussion.

Later on in the negotiations, when service industries were being discussed, the UK team reportedly proposed that musical performances be included in the list of permitted activities for business travellers, and possibly also some sort of reciprocal work permit arrangements along the lines of what the UK already offers to non-UK nationals. In contrast to the EU draft text, the public does not currently have access to the details of this UK proposal. The EU have explained that they rejected it as unworkable, perhaps because the EU doesn’t automatically have the authority to override member states’ right to impose their own work permit requirements on Third Country nationals, but also because it didn’t offer anything to EU citizens travelling to the UK to work which they don’t have access to anyway outside the arrangements in the Deal.

Analysis: it’s trickier to deduce exactly what went on here without being able to see the precise details of the UK proposal. But the UK had already staked out its position on entry requirements for EU artists coming to the UK back in February 2020, effectively spiking their team’s guns on this issue before the negotiations even started in earnest. Given that, I can’t see what incentive there was for the EU to put in the work on their side in return for securing little, if anything, in the way of further concessions for their citizens. On paper, while it’s obviously more restrictive than before, the new set-up isn’t that bad a deal for EU musicians, and at the end of the day they still have 27 other visa-free countries to choose from, unlike their British counterparts.

Ultimately, only a handful of people know what happened during the negotiations, and even then recollections and interpretations will be subjective. It’s important to bear that in mind when demanding that various UK or EU officials release details of what went on – they don’t necessarily know that much more than we do.

Stepping back to look at the overall process, you get the distinct impression that a compromise might have been possible (although the UK Government’s objection to the fundamental principal of freedom of movement should not be underestimated) but that nailing down the fine detail of such a compromise would have required time. There’s a reason that trade talks usually take place over a period of several years rather than a few weeks. So many of the issues that all branches of UK industry are now facing are a consequence of the absurdly rushed nature of the negotiations, and the almost non-existent amount of time left to prepare once the details of the Deal were announced.

Where were British musicians when the negotiations were taking place, when there might have been a decent chance of influencing the UK position? In fairness, we’ve had a lot on our plate over the last ten months. The Government’s rejection of an extension to the negotiations was a cheap shot in the middle of a pandemic, but it worked for them, in that it meant they could force through the Deal they eventually got before anyone had time to scrutinise its numerous flaws. Eating up the last few days with nonsensical quibbling over fish was consistent with that strategy, and there’s little doubt that the shortcomings of the Deal for fishermen and touring musicians will be the first of many more to reveal themselves.


So much for what may or may not have happened during the negotiations. Whatever the truth of it (assuming such an objective concept can even be applied to a process like this), piecing together the clues is by now a diverting parlour game at best. The EU made an offer, which it claims was excellent, and the UK rejected it. The UK made a counter-proposal, which it also claims was excellent, and the EU rejected it. There wasn’t any time to see if a compromise could be reached, and so the subject of any specific arrangements for musicians working abroad was left out of the final Agreement altogether.

The question which really matters now is, what next for UK musicians?

At this point let me reveal, or remind you, that I have two dogs in this fight, as a dual-nationality British and Irish citizen and passport holder, and so it is probably fair to say that it’s a lot easier for me to survey all this with a calm and rational eye. I fully understand the raw emotions that the whole concept of Brexit continues to invoke in my solely-British colleagues, and if anyone ever wants to question whether this really affects me severely enough for me to have a legitimate view on it, then they may well have a point.

But in many ways a calm, rational approach might just be what is needed right now, if British musicians are to find footholds in the walls of this deep hole in which they’ve been dropped. What is crucial is that we distinguish between the intended and unintended consequences of Brexit.

At long last reality is biting, and it is finally becoming clear what the Government’s vision of Brexit actually is; what “taking back control of our borders” means in practice. Many British industries, our own included, are now complaining about the barriers to international trade we now face. But it’s vital that we take on board that these are not there by accident: they are part of the design. Brexit, as conceived by this Government, involves erecting barriers to international trade by its very definition. The extra costs and red tape are not a mistake. They are there as a direct consequence of the Government’s approach, and they want them to stay there. This is Brexit working as intended.

But there’s another category of problems too. Colleagues with forthcoming work in Spain have reported issues during their visits to the Spanish Embassy, where the software used to process visas hasn’t been updated to include the UK as a possible nationality for applicants.

This is an example of an unintended consequence of Brexit, glitches in the systems used for processing and traversing the new trade barriers. Those glitches are there by accident rather than design.

These unintended consequences are largely a result of that recklessly short timescale of the negotiations, and they are desirable to no one. And so the thin sliver of good news is that, if we are willing and able to separate them from the intended consequences, fixing them should be eminently possible. Like it or not, we need the Government’s help on that, and they have every incentive to help us. They need to show that their Brexit works.

To that end, the multiple references to potential bilateral discussions with individual EU member states during this week’s Urgent Question debate in the House of Commons were promising. In terms of making immediate progress on the issues facing individual UK artists working in the EU right now, this is what will stand the best chance of rapid success – for example on ensuring that any opt-outs by member states to the negotiated new arrangements for social security are kept to a minimum. (Labour’s Barbara Keeley asked a perceptive question on this issue during the debate, and Caroline Dinenage’s answer also displayed an encouraging degree of understanding of it.) The more detailed guidance musicians can give the Government on specific areas like this, the more likely they are to be able to lower one or two of those barriers they’ve placed in our path.

Strangely enough, the current state of the pandemic has provided a little bit of breathing space to fix these unintended consequences – if it weren’t for theatre lockdowns and travel restrictions, there’d very likely be a lot more of us stuck in airports and embassies across Europe right now. So if we act quickly, there’s room for manoeuvre we wouldn’t otherwise have had.

During that Commons debate, Dinenage was clear that bilateral talks would be with a view to facilitating current arrangements for visas and work permits, rather than negotiating any further waivers. That may well be the case for the time being, but once those lines of communication are established, who knows what else might transpire? The Government could end up getting a taste for exercising that “sovereignty” they like to talk about so much – it would be good to see it amount to something tangible for once.

Surely this is a serious lack of ambition on our part though? Other campaigns have frequently forced this Government into U-turns on other issues. Why couldn’t musicians do the same, if we find the right slogan and grab enough headlines?

There’s a crucial distinction, however, between issues like free school meals, and a U-turn on freedom of movement. The former is a question of a relatively small amount of money which the Government doesn’t really want to spend, but which doesn’t ultimately amount to any betrayal of an article of faith. (Even their harshest detractors can’t really believe deep down that most Tories live to starve the children of poor families.) By contrast, “taking control of our borders” was the central manifesto promise for the current crop of Conservative MPs; whether you agree with them or not, there can be no doubting that for many of them, it is their most fundamental raison d’etre, and they can also claim with justification that they have a very recent mandate to act upon it. When we demand that they let go of that principle for our benefit, we need to appreciate the magnitude of what we’re asking them to do – and therefore the likelihood of us succeeding.

The other lesson to be drawn from the success of the Marcus Rashford style of campaign is the use of “SMART” goals – specific, measurable, achievable, resourced, and time-bound. Funding for free school meals is a perfect example of this: Rashford is never asking for the moon on a stick yesterday, and that’s clearly not by chance. Government can provide that funding at the stroke of a pen, and at little political cost; the amount of pressure required to achieve that goal is commensurately light.

Some of the noises from the EU might sound more encouraging: both sides, in fact, seem to have said they’re open to further negotiations on musicians’ movement. But dig a little deeper and you find that they both mean on the basis of their respective original proposals. So the chasm between them remains as wide as ever, with the Deal done, and the negotiating teams stood down and disbanded. (Michel Barnier last week: “This agreement will not be renegotiated, it now needs to be implemented.”) It’s not entirely impossible that a rabbit might pop out of someone’s hat at some stage, but we need to be realistic about how likely that is, now that the show’s over and the magician is on the bus home.

Furthermore, UK fishermen are currently demanding “privileged access to the Single Market”, which boils down to what musicians are asking for too, as are farmers, hauliers, and most if not all other sectors of British industry in their own ways. If the Government suddenly caved in and went back to the original EU proposal for musicians in return for a quieter life, it wouldn’t work – those other groups would all be banging on their door the next morning, demanding the same thing for themselves.

The inexorable logic of all this eventually leads back to UK membership of the EEA at least, be it in an off-the-peg or bespoke arrangement by another name. But that long journey will take time – years, not days or weeks. In the meantime, we may well be better off aiming for smaller, more achievable victories.

But even minor progress will require a hard decision from UK musicians: do we want to protest, or to lobby? In other words, to voice our objections to the whole concept of Brexit, perhaps in the hope of eventually getting it all reversed in a few years or decades; or to make shorter term progress in working with what we’ve got right now? One is an act of ideologically pure principled defiance; the other involves getting hands dirty, working alongside our natural opponents, finding small areas of compromise and mutual interest. Most people are temperamentally better suited to one than the other. Both are valid, and valuable, campaigns. But they are, to a large extent, mutually exclusive – you can’t do both at once. If the goal is to reverse Brexit, the problems it’s causing now are an illustration of why ditching it would make sense. But if many of those problems don’t get solved, and soon, it is we who will suffer first and foremost.

It’s a bit like when you dislike the manager of your football club, and find yourself willing your team to lose a few games so that he gets the sack. It might work in the long run, but in the short term you’re still losing. (And even after all that, you might end up with Mick McCarthy.) Whatever our fully-justified feelings about Brexit, if most of us are to avoid the imminent prospect of going bust, we need it to work.

So British musicians need urgently to decide whether they wish to protest or to lobby; to point out the sheer illogical fallacy of Brexit, or to work more quietly to fix the short term problems which are costing them work in Europe right now. Both are important. But you can only do one at a time.

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9 Responses to Brexit for Musicians: What Happened, What Next?

  1. Rex Oper says:

    British musicians tried protest from 2017-19, mostly at the wrong target. Now they’ve been abandoned by every political grouping but the one they focused those old protests on. A disaster in past of artists own making.

    Besides protests and lobbying a third option exists cf a media campaign with human interest stories. This is what Rashford did on school meals (his own life story) and it worked. Surely some friendly journos even in the right wing press can be cajoled to assist? Also there needs to be a swift and public disavowal of Lebrechts British music for British musicians nonsense.

  2. Rex Oper says:

    Indeed musicians without Eu passports or existing intl reputations are in a v bleak place.

    That said, a media campaign doesn’t need to be an either/ or with immediate efforts to improve things incrementally. Also the agreement is up for review in 2025/6 so a 5 year horizon.

    My subtext here is that the earnest attempts underway to petition the gov for an EU wide musicians visa and ask questions in parliament about how the deal came about aren’t likely to succeed.

    • Yes, I’m afraid that’s the brutal reality of it. As I say in the article, what’s being asked of the govt is, for them, no run-of-the-mill U-turn. In terms of any significant overhaul, I think you’re right that the scheduled review is the first realistic opportunity, so the question is what’s the best strategy for that 5-year campaign – and how do we all survive until then.

      • Rex Oper says:

        I really have no good ideas except glib ones like emigrate or find yourself an EU passport holding partner.

        More seriously, as I’ve mentioned in other comments, using this time for soul searching won’t hurt. Why did most British musicians approach brexit with a fatal mix of naïveté, denial and entitlement? Why are the immigration changes surprising musicians now? Where was the institutional courage/ leadership to argue for what musicians needed in a brexit deal after Remain lost in 2016? It’s easy to do Monday morning quarterbacking but at least publicly I haven’t seen anyone asking these questions.

      • I agree it’s interesting the degree to which musicians appear to have been caught on the hop by the reality of this – in fairness, along with pretty much every other branch of British industry. “Nothing will change” seems to have been a fallacy swallowed by Remain voters as much as Leavers, it turns out. An important point to make is that working in the EU is still far from impossible for many UK musicians, just as with the US, Canada, Australia, China etc etc. It’s a right pain compared to before, but given the right support it’s far from unmanageable. So no one should despair or give up, if they’re truly motivated to build an international career. It’s a case of accepting the new reality and seeing what can be done to make it all work as efficiently as possible in the short term, and then thinking about long term political goals as a separate, broader issue.

  3. Pingback: Brexit for Musicians: An Englishman Abroad | Ranitidine & Tonic

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