In approving the final edit of my attempt at explaining Brexit to Americans for The Middle Class Artist last week, it struck me how little has changed in the two months since I wrote it. As the immediate challenges of the pandemic continue to provide cover for the impact of the new EU visa rules for UK artists, there’s been a fair amount of campaigning heat without much in the way of light when it comes to tangible process.
Many of the industry’s voices are zeroing-in more than ever on returning to the negotiating table and reviving the corpse of an EU-wide visa waiver for musicians. As regular readers will know, I’m an Irish citizen, so ultimately it’s not for me to pontificate on what my British colleagues decide to focus on in their campaigning goals. But on an emotional level if nothing else it’s important to be realistic about the chances of success, even though that involves weighing the words of politicians, and therefore having to separate an awful lot of chaff from precious little wheat.
There are many legitimate criticisms to be made of the UK Government, and their lack of clarity, deliberate or unintended, on many issues is one of them. But on this one they’ve been as clear as they ever get: their core objection to the idea of any reciprocal visa waiver is one of fundamental principle, and in fact probably the principle most fundamental to them – their objection to Freedom of Movement. We may well disagree with that, and we can seek to change their and the public’s minds on the issue. But the fact remains that asking the current Conservative leadership to expand Freedom of Movement, even for a limited sector of the population, is the equivalent of asking Nye Bevan to privatise the NHS.
There’s also often a degree of naivety in the attitude to the EU’s side of the story. Despite their insistence that the visa waiver for musicians is a standard proposal in their trade deals, it’s interesting to note how rarely that seems to have been taken up, by larger countries in particular, and worth asking why that might be.
A more realistic target on this proposal could be getting the Labour Party to include it in their next manifesto. Even that is not as straightforward as we might assume – their leadership is wary of anything which has any suggestion of reversing or “betraying” Brexit about it, since they’ll presumably need to bring a substantial slab of Leave voters back to the fold if they’re to stand any chance of forming a government next time round. Harriet Harman’s 10-point plan for musicians is a promising start at least, and UK performing arts workers should be doing all they can to get Labour to adopt it officially and expand on it to include the whole sector.
For the more immediate future, a casual glance at the news most days confirms the impression that we’re living far closer to Romulus’ cesspool than Plato’s Republic. With an eye to realistic prospects of success, it may be better to focus on persuading those currently in power to get on with doing things that they want to, and which are unarguably in their interests. The Prime Minister’s insistence that he is “working flat out” to find solutions to the crisis is a little short on concrete evidence so far. Built in his image, this is a government which needs its toes kept close to the fire to keep things moving forward, it seems.
Or even just to tread water. The appointment of Lord Frost to the Cabinet Office and the continuing skirmishes with the EU over Northern Ireland, vaccines and so on do not bode well for the co-operative relationship which progress on tackling EU-wide problems will require. With the European Parliament yet to ratify the December 2020 deal, and the UK Government asking for more time to fight their case with the EU over the legality of the Irish border arrangements, we should be under no illusions that No Deal is still far from off the table, and even the small victories contained in the deal as it stands are far from assured. Meanwhile, every time the Government picks a fight with the EU, valid or spurious, it seems to go up a couple of points in the opinion polls. Anyone counting on the UK to demonstrate the motivation or tactical nous needed to thrash out a reciprocal “Musician’s Passport” arrangement would be well advised not to hold their breath.
Smaller scale bilateral progress remains a far more realistic prospect in the shorter term. And unilateral action need not be dismissed either – one of the biggest morale boosts for UK artists was France’s declaration that they were welcome without visa or work permit for up to 90 days, made entirely without reciprocation. The same goes (more or less) for Germany, Finland and Estonia, for example. Where countries can be persuaded that it’s in their interests to open their borders to British workers, there’s no reason that one-way frictionless trade can’t be achieved. Bilateral agreements needn’t be confined to EU member states either – the Government promises us Global Britain, so let them start delivering on that. And while it lacks the glamour of more wide-ranging demands, issuing second passports to British artists with international careers is a step which the UK could take tomorrow morning, with no downside and an immediate positive impact.
The subject of red tape brings us to today’s case study, which looks at the situation in Norway – which, bear in mind, is a member of the EEA, the EFTA and Schengen, but not the EU. As before, please note that this is an account of one artist’s experience, and should not be taken as formal advice nor a reliable guide to what anyone else might need. As always, the responsibility for making sure all official requirements are understood and met ultimately rests with the individual fulfilling the contract.
Case Study: Tim Claydon
Tim Claydon is a British freelance choreographer and movement director specialising in opera. Like most operatic contracts, his recent agreement with the Norwegian Opera and Ballet was finalised and signed well in advance of the engagement, in this case some twelve months ago. At that time, he wouldn’t have needed any form of visa or permit to work for the required six weeks.
Since January 1st 2021 this has all changed.
In January, Tim was informed by the company that he would now need to apply for a Long Stay Visa Residence Permit. He reports that the company were “incredibly helpful and I have been extremely lucky in the fact that they have paid for the application NOK6300 (GBP £561).” He was able to get an interview at the Norway Visa Application Centre in London within ten days. Tim continues: “I filled out a series of forms, which I have to say were far more concise than even the US visa applications that I have filed on several occasions. I was asked to list, with dates, all the times that I had ever visited an EU country!! I must admit that I gave up on this section.”
For the interview, Tim needed to take the following documentation:
- photocopies of all used pages within it;
- documentation showing details of his education;
- documentation showing his work experience;
- two new photos;
- signed copies of contracts;
- housing reservation letter (with check-in and check-out times and proof of payment);
- a letter of employment form, from the company;
- a pay table – showing that the fee meets the payment required by Norwegian government, from the company.
Tim: “I was very lucky to be working with a company that could provide all this for me within such short notice and that I had time to be able to pull all this together. So now we wait; I had an email following the interview to say that my case was being processed but that there is still a minimum processing time of eight weeks. I’m due to fly out to start my ten day quarantine on 26th March. I was able to take my passport away with me, which is some comfort, and the company are being very cool about me possibly arriving after the start of rehearsal.”
So, another complex and expensive process (especially compared to the situation pre-Brexit), and crucially, a lengthy period of uncertainty while the application is processed. It’s worth reiterating that for an experienced artist such as Tim, with an established reputation and the support of a well-resourced employer, these new processes are challenging but not insurmountable. For artists just starting out, or without the same reputation and resources backing them up, they could very well prove the difference between an entire career being viable or not.
I checked in again with Tim around the time he was due to travel to Norway, to see whether the process had been completed successfully and in time.
“Unfortunately the Norway gig was postponed to 2022 last week. I have to say that was due to Oslo shutting down to an outbreak in Covid cases. I’ve since cancelled my visa application. I don’t know whether I would have received my visa in time – I think it was highly unlikely but I guess we will never know.”
Covid cases in Norway rose sharply during February and March, and Oslo imposed new lockdown measures on March 15th, including closing theatres. Once again, the pandemic provided cover for the Brexit crisis. If Tim’s guess is correct and his paperwork had been delayed beyond his arranged travel date, he still had the backing of his employers in working around the situation. But the uncertainty and administrative burden in employing a UK artist will have been noted, and the more those add up, the less likely European companies will be to book British workers in future. And without that European work, a huge number of those British workers won’t be able to sustain a career at all, which would have a devastating impact on the UK industry which relies on them, and frequently takes them for granted, as an irreplaceable resource.
With that in mind, it’s worth revisiting the situation in Spain. We previously examined the production of Lessons in Love and Violence at the Liceu in Barcelona, which was scheduled to move on to Madrid’s Teatro Real next month. That has now been “postponed to a future season” – in effect a cancellation, as far as the freelance artists involved are concerned.
That cancellation has occurred because of a delay in the start of rehearsals for Peter Grimes at the Teatro Real, which is reportedly down to several factors, one of which was “the delay in the (British) artists’ arrival to the rehearsals, caused by the restrictions in mobility and the bureaucratic obstacles of Brexit.”
So we are now beginning to see concrete examples of the direct impact of Brexit. British artists missing out on work, and having to return home without bringing that income and tax revenue back to the UK. And a Spanish audience missing out on the chance to experience a world-class contemporary British opera, showcasing the very best of British culture on an international stage.
The Government talks a good game on “Global Britain”, and on “working flat out” to solve the problems facing those who are out there selling the idea in practice. But talk is cheap. It’s high time for them to put those words into action.
Disclaimer: this article is intended as an anecdotal account and should not be relied upon wholly or in part as a guide to any application process. The responsibility for understanding and fulfilling any contractual and/or official requirements remains solely and entirely that of the contracted artist. All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Paul Carey Jones’ new book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is now available in paperback from Amazon sites worldwide – for more details and a link to your nearest international retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy