Brexit for Musicians: Endgame

“Global Britain”.

A press release from the Cross-Border Services group last week revealed an oversight in the UK-Switzerland Services Mobility Agreement, essentially meaning that, since 1st January this year, UK citizens living in the EU (or anywhere else in the world) are no longer legally allowed to work as freelance service providers in Switzerland.

Some of my colleagues have a face-to-face meeting with Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden next week. They might consider opening with the question, how does making it harder, and in some cases impossible, for British citizens to work in Switzerland tally with his vision of “Global Britain”? As with the situation in Norway we looked at a few weeks ago, these are not EU member states, so the argument that making life more difficult in the EU would be compensated by opening new doors beyond its borders doesn’t wash. Everywhere they turn, British workers are facing the reality that those doors have been slammed shut in their faces.

By now, we’ve seen enough evidence to show to all but the most entrenched Little Englander or wishful of thinkers that the problems being caused by Brexit are real enough. But where are the solutions?

The totemic demand from musicians continues to be a return to the negotiating table with the EU, to thrash out a “Musician’s Passport” – in other words, visa- and work permit-free business travel for British musicians across the EEA. In effect, this would mean a small section of the UK workforce rejoining the Single Market, and a Customs Union to cover the transport of instruments and technical equipment. Performing artists are asking for performing artists to be included in the scheme, and theatrical freelancers working in other back- and off-stage roles suggest it should also include all performing arts workers.

Meanwhile, the fishing industry continues to make its demands for Government support in dealing with its catastrophic problems. Lawyers, accountants, IT workers, antique dealers, silversmiths… The list goes on, and increases by the day.

So musicians, theatrical artists, performing arts workers – why should they get preferential treatment? There are many valid points to be made about the unique position of the UK’s performing arts industry, and its reliance on the EU market. The Government’s principal objection remains that a reciprocal (as it would surely have to be) visa-free arrangement would be inconsistent with its core manifesto commitment to “Take Back Control of our Borders”. The Incorporated Society of Musicians argues that the two can be reconciled, since the arrangement would only apply to a very small number of people on both sides. Whether you agree with that or not, it’s hard to see it holding water with the Home Office in its current form. Mr Dowden recently revealed that the situation was “much more positive” than he had thought, which is delightful news for him; but it implies that he’s carefully shifting his chair so as not to pick a fight with his counterpart on Marsham Street.

(The above is not to find fault with the ISM. They and a small hardcore of campaigners continue to work tirelessly and impressively, leading the charge on this issue and filling a vacuum neglectfully created by some other organisations. Their suggestions are generally thoroughly researched and spot on.)

How do we rally public support behind us, artists have been asking. All those fans who gleefully consume our end product – surely they’ll back us on this now, when we really need them? All it would take is our own version of Marcus Rashford to put our point across and bring pressure to bear on our political leaders.

The distinction is obvious once you think about it. Rashford has been campaigning for concessions for other people, those clearly in a position less secure than his. We’re asking for something for ourselves, and seeking support from people who have also lost those same rights and privileges. If we should get them back, why shouldn’t they?

Why not indeed. If you look closely at the demands of all those other sectors of British industry, they all boil down to essentially the same thing: membership of a single market, or a customs union, or in most cases, both.

So, two points to make. Firstly, the only thing which will ultimately solve these issues (not to mention those of the Northern Irish border) is a move forward – not, let’s be absolutely clear, back to anything – but forward to a new UK-EU arrangement which includes reciprocal freedom of movement for people, goods and services. It will have to be packaged as something new, and uniquely, exceptionally British. Wrap it in a Union Jack if you have to. But it’s the Single Market Plus Customs Union option which, had the tortuous and ultra-sensitive process of Brexit been given anything approaching a sensible amount of time, would surely have made itself clear as the only rational interpretation of the way ahead.

But while looking forward, musicians also need to look sideways. Standing beside us, making very similar demands, are our colleagues in other performing arts, accountants, lawyers, antique dealers, silversmiths, farmers, lorry drivers, steelworkers, car manufacturers, and yes even fishermen. It may not always be clear just yet, but all asking for the same thing.

A colleague last week described our industry as having a gift for promoting itself to itself. We need the courage to lift our eyes, broaden our horizons, take a look around us. Because that’s where our mutual support lies, not in a headline-grabbing figurehead, but in all these disparate voices eventually coming together with one message, rather than shouting and scrabbling over each other for the best seat on any given day’s political merry-go-round.

At the heart of it, we’re all reinventing the same wheel. It’s a conversation which should have happened post-2016, or in an ideal world years before any referendum; but better late than never.

Still, there’s no disputing that it’s a tough ask. This month’s election results have made it clearer than ever how far we are as a country from seeing a closer relationship with Europe as being a vote-winner. And every time the Government picks a public fight with the EU, justified or not, it adds a couple of points to its poll lead. Ears should have pricked up at the Queen’s Speech announcement that the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act is to be repealed. Our campaigning may have to be directed at securing General Election manifesto commitments sooner that we think, or would like.

How we could do with a Great Explainer, of the sort that politics has struggled to produce in recent history. Every aspect of the modern world is so complex that no one person can understand it all. Anyone who claims to do so, and have simple solutions to its problems and challenges, is either delusional or a con man, or both. But in the absence of someone to put that modern complexity across in simple terms and explain why it’s not something to be feared, many people will understandably turn to those dangerous peddlers of reassuring myths. So the task of explanation is not one which our more rational leaders can afford to shirk, as they have done for a political generation or two by now.

When it comes to shorter-term goals, I’d love my colleagues to ask Mr Dowden next week about the situation with Switzerland, about the treatment of foreign citizens arriving here to work, and about the no-brainer question of issuing second passports to British performing arts workers who regularly travel abroad. However they decide to approach it, they’re a formidable team of champions, and they go with a whole industry fully behind them.

We should also learn the lesson that trade agreements are far easier to influence during the negotiating phase than afterwards. Crucial as the EU market is to the performing arts, there are now talks underway with other nations where the chance of gaining some traction is far greater. We took our eye off the ball in 2020, which is entirely forgivable given the global circumstances at the time. But let’s not make the same mistake twice.

Ultimately, as the post-Brexit era drags on, it’s increasingly impossible to avoid the inescapable necessity of persuading the British public that a new membership of a single market and a customs union with the EU is crucial to our success as a nation. It’s a herculean task, and a long term one. And I hope I’m wrong, and that a more straightforward, albeit narrower, solution to our industry’s problems is achievable in a matter of weeks rather than years.

But if you follow the logic, it’s the only long term answer; not just for my industry, but for pretty much any branch of British business. And, while requiring a marathon effort of campaigning and persuading, I have to believe it’s not beyond reach.

There are a lot of pieces to be manoeuvred and sacrifices to be made in the meantime. But the way the chessboard is laid out, that’s the only endgame.

Paul Carey Jones’ new book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is now available in paperback, Kindle and audiobook editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit:

“A powerful traversal of life in the pandemic” – Opera Magazine

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About Paul Carey Jones

All content Copyright © Paul Carey Jones 2010-2023. Paul Carey Jones is a Welsh-Irish opera singer. 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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