The Musicians’ Passport

  • Posted on 18 February 2020 at 10:35am
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First, I should say that I fully understand and applaud the union of which I have been a proud member for over 40 years, the Musicians’ Union ( , for doing its job by fighting for its members’ interests and livelihoods in attempting to ameliorate at least some of the many damaging aspects of Brexit for our profession. It is doubly admirable that they are expending so much energy on the imminent fall-out that will descend upon post-Brexit touring, since the impact of withdrawal from the Single Market and Customs Union will disproportionately hit musicians and singers in the earlier, more vulnerable part of their careers. Indeed, for most non-high-profile bands and for developing singers it will make performing in the EU fraught with difficulty, obstacle and expense. The performers and creative workers’ union Equity is aligned closely with the MU in this campaign, though their efforts are directed at a more generic ‘artists’ visa’; whilst for their spoken-word actor members, the Anglosphere is probably a more important potential source of jobs, for their triple-threat musical theatre members and especially dancer members, Europe has been a significant and long-standing source of work that will shrivel to a trickle on January 1st next year.


The Musicians’ Union petition, and its aim to persuade UK government ministers and negotiators to put a case for a ‘musicians’ passport’ to EU counterparts during the coming FTA negotiations, is very well intentioned and I hope that it may succeed, as do most professional musicians. However I do have some thoughts to share on it (quelle surprise..), mainly – though not exclusively – concerning the management of expectations.


First, British musicians are asking for something that is not and never has been available to musicians from Russia, Africa, India, Japan, China, the Americas or indeed any other non-EU/EEA country, namely an EU-wide work visa. (Nor, self-evidently, is the proposed bespoke passport available to workers from any other of the many industries hit by the economically insane decision for the UK to withdraw from the SM/CU. Other industries are not, of course, the responsibility of the Musicians’ Union, but the UK approaches the EU in these negotiations as a supplicant. We are not choosers we are beggars, and in this version of realpolitik, harsh priorities will come into play: do we mere musicians hope to prevail in our request when the Johnson government will also be lobbied by the UK’s biggest export industry, financial services, for concessions & exceptions for financiers, who are also historically big donors to the Tory party? Livestock farmers, faced with a near-wipe-out of their export business outside the SM, have traditionally been solid Tory voters across rural England & Wales. Whose pleas will be heard with most urgency?). British musicians are, in Theresa May’s ill-judged term, asking to become ‘queue-jumpers’ by hoping for an EU-wide work visa or visa exemption, something that would have to be invented from scratch.


The reason why an EU-wide artist visa as proposed by the MU has never been available before will come as a shock to Brexit supporters. It is because in matters of border control with respect to work visa arrangements, the EU exerts no authority: these matters are solely under the jurisdiction of the member states themselves. And always have been. It is perhaps the most pernicious and widely-spread of all the Leave campaign lies, weaponised by two prime ministers, that member states of the EU don’t control their own borders. Yes they do. If you are a musician, group, orchestra, singer, actor or dancer, from, say, Brazil, and you want to tour in the UK, you apply for your visa to do so from the UK Government. The UK Government has always had the power to grant or deny such a visa and impose whatever restrictions or fees it sees fit on such visas. Ask anyone who runs an arts festival that invites participants from outside the EU. The necessary permissions are entirely sought from the UK Government, and since Theresa May’s hostile environment kicked in, these permissions have often been refused, or delayed so long as to be useless. The UK has had at its disposal a range of restrictions that it could have applied to EU citizens seeking work, too, but this raft of border control mechanisms have been a casualty of the war against truth waged by the proponents of Brexit.


If the same Brazilian musicians wanted to include in their tour itinerary France, or Portugal, or Poland, they must apply to each member state separately and be granted work visas separately. Moreover, some EU member states impose a US-style ‘withholding tax’ on performers’ earnings whilst in their country, others do not. These issues are nothing to do with the EU. So, what the MU is asking the EU to provide, an EU-wide musicians’ passport, is something that has never been a thing: an EU-wide work visa for applicants outside the EEA. It will require, if ever granted, a major change in the current EU-versus-member-state competences. It is so sad that the UK electorate have been so comprehensively, so wilfully misled on how border control for EU member states actually operates, and a disgrace that press and broadcasters have done so little for so long to explain the truth to voters. We are where we are thanks to a tsunami of falsehoods. But we are where we are and the MU were one of the organisations who tirelessly, relentlessly attempted to point out to politicians and any media who’d listen what ‘controlling our borders’ actually meant.


Let’s say you are an EU negotiator presented with this request for an exception to be made allowing some form of freedom of movement for one sector of Britain’s many export industries. You may wonder if the UK, during its long period of membership of the EU, had campaigned to make it easier for artists from outside the EU/EEA to visit and perform, or whether the UK had proposed legislation to make artistic exchange more fluid, with fewer bureaucratic hurdles to leap. This would at least provide a consistent, non-hypocritical context for such a request now we have joined the outsiders. I fear you would not find such a UK-Govt-led campaign, though I am willing to believe that individual MEPs were committed to such outcomes and argued for them.


You might reflect upon the fact, instead, that the UK’s cultural sector, when inside the Single Market & Customs Union, was a huge net beneficiary of its largesse. It was our West End shows that toured Europe’s capitals, not the other way around. Our broadcasters and film-makers were the ones that needed the Spanish sun to shoot under and it was our post-production facilities that sucked in niche talent from across the EU, often at short notice, to provide world-class expertise in our hub cities. European bands and film composers came to record in our recording studios. Our bands began their touring careers criss-crossing a continent of smaller venues picking up followers and building a profile that led to those same fans travelling back to Britain to the lucrative music festivals those bands headlined later in their careers. Our singers were the ones that could get jobs in Germany, France or Italy’s 120 or so professional opera houses in exchange for their singers occasionally visiting one of our ten. Our book publishers were the ones who were able to profit from the sale in Europe of English language publications from all over the Anglosphere on hugely preferential terms. We were the country, in short, that did best out of the opportunities afforded by the Single Market. The idea put forward by Brexiters that being a member of the EU somehow ‘fettered’ our ability to trade with the world is the exact opposite of the truth. The Single Market and Customs Union suited us better than anyone. If you were an EU negotiator, just how magnanimous would you be feeling towards the UK now that opportunities would be arising to fill these gaps from within other EU member states? We don’t even have the monopoly on the English language to sell, since as well as of course Ireland, The Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Germany are these days – for the purposes of conducting commerce and tourism at any rate – de facto English-speaking countries.


Let’s say, as an EU negotiator, you had caught any of the past 200-300 editions of BBC Question Time, and noted the level of disinformation, bigotry and anti-EU vitriol, or scim-read any of the past 2000 editions of the Mail, the Sun, the Express or the Telegraph, and seen all the same ill-informed xenophobic bile spewing out, page after page, replacing news with opinion, truth-seeking with prejudice: would you, honestly, be thinking right now ‘let’s make the divorce for these people as easy and as generous as possible?’.


On the other hand, you might judge (and I hope this would be the case) that punishing the overwhelmingly pro-Remain creative industries sector for the sins of their Brexit government was harsh. But I imagine these dilemmas are going to be exacerbated every time Johnson and/or one of his ministers reneges on a previous undertaking. The UK government isn’t, as I write, intending to honour the explicit terms of the Withdrawal Agreement that they themselves signed and hailed as a breakthrough prior to the General Election, with regard to border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Why would an EU negotiator trust a word a UK minister now said? The MU, along with its partners in these discussions, UK Music, The Creative Industries Federation and others, have also noted with disappointment that the EU’s Copyright Directive, hitherto advocated and supported by successive UK governments, was within days of Johnson’s election victory in December, unceremoniously dumped at his behest. There are upsides and downsides to the Directive, sure, the (long overdue) intention of which is to ensure a fairer remuneration for the creators of content on YouTube and other user-upload sites, but Johnson’s criticism of it in a tweet last year was a copy & paste take-down direct from Google’s multi-million dollar PR campaign against it. To be fair to him, he’s reliable on one thing: he’s unswervingly the oligarchs’ champion. He seems not to have grasped how the directive is designed to work in practice, nor care. Whether his back-of-an-envelope misgivings were well-placed or not, UK creators were given a crash course in what a Johnson government will be like in keeping its word, or in protecting the interests of UK music-makers. Judge them by their actions, not their words: the biggest employer of musicians and composers in our country, by a country mile, is and has been for a century, the BBC. Consider what the Johnson clique are currently threatening that organisation with.


So for all of the above reasons, EU versus member state competences, the UK Government’s narrow objectives and unreliability, an EU-wide visa exemption for touring musicians is a very, very big ask. The MU and their partner organisations are doubtless looking at alternative models around the world for some kind of performing artist exchange, such as that which allows American and Canadian creative artists (especially actors & dancers) to work in each other’s territories. This particular country-to-country deal took many years to set up and has attached to it various restrictions and limitations that anyone used to EU Freedom of Movement would find sub-optimal, but it works nonetheless, and I am guessing professional musicians would settle for that rather than nothing. It might be that the MU and the Brexit government can begin by aiming at country by country arrangements, rather than an EU-wide scheme.


But let’s for one moment suppose the MU are successful in at least having the passport issue tabled for discussion with EU-UK negotiators. The visa exemption, were it to come in to existence, is just one part of the problem for touring musicians, bands & orchestras (and, by the way, touring musicians need touring engineers and technicians too, what visa will they be travelling on?). The other is the dreaded carnet system, the itemising of every piece of equipment, the import-export customs forms, the VAT declarations, the proof by receipt of each instrument or amp or lead or outboard sound gear, in both directions of travel. The MU’s campaign specifies this area, this costly mountain-range of red tape, as something they would like to include in the negotiations, that there might be some form of exception or loophole available to make musicians’ touring lives more viable. However, barring a miracle, Michael Gove last week hammered the nail on the coffin of this hope last week. Full customs checks of all kinds, along with carnets and all the panoply of regulatory compliance, will be required from 1st January 2021. Whether there’s a negotiated FTA or not. The official government position is now that, to all intents and purposes, all businesses that trade with Europe should prepare for the hardest of all Brexit outcomes, with the UK’s intention to opt for the possibility of considerable regulatory divergence, equivalent, as far as customs at national borders are concerned, to ‘no deal’. In a speech last night in Brussels, the UK Chief Negotiator, David Frost, made this position unequivocal.


Even if the UK and the EU could, in our most fervent & hopeful dreams, agree some kind of exception for touring musicians, bands and orchestras that would allow them to be waved joyously through customs, how are their equipment vans and lorries going to get past the thousands of other vehicles held for days in vast queues along the approaches to channel ports and Eurotunnel, come next year? By what distortion of physics are they going to be sailing past into the freight terminal, their cellos, guitars and mixers deemed safe to cross the channel, while living farm animals wait days to be slaughtered by the side of the M20? How will the haulage companies carrying musical equipment circumvent the new restrictions on the number of HGV licences available to operate legally inside EU borders? Won’t perishable goods and essential medical supplies be prioritised, if licences are scarce?


If you think I’m exaggerating the scale of difficulty for cross-channel haulage that Gove’s announcement last week entails, you haven’t seen the horrified reaction of exporters and their haulage partners to it. Yes, they were warned, and yes, they have been warning about these perils themselves for years, but every time they did so they were dismissed as scaremongers, or re-assured by countless government spokespeople that an ‘easy’ deal would be made, access would be possible, all would be well. Now we know the fears expressed by hauliers, perhaps best outlined for the layperson in the pithy, good-humoured yet quietly alarming tweets of ‘Ciaran the euro courier’ (@donnyc1975), were well founded. If by some miracle an FTA deal, or a skeleton outline for a later one, can be thrashed out in the next few months, what we now know, according to cabinet ministers themselves, is that as far as borders are concerned, it will be as near to ‘no deal’ as dammit. We are crashing out in 11 months’ time, though no-one in our integrity-free, honesty-averse government will call it crashing out. They will take a leaf out of Uncle Joe’s playbook and call it the triumph of the people’s will.


The UK goes to this negotiating table as the junior party. It seeks concessions for which the EU will quite reasonably expect reciprocity. What can we give in return for privileged access to the single market? Can we offer Australia or Russia or Canada’s vast natural resources? Can we offer businesses, trades, skills, expertise that are not available in EU countries? What’s in it for the EU to allow British musicians to tour and perform on their patch? Cultural exchange, yes, artistic endeavour and innovation shared, yes, but will it create jobs for EU member states? That will be at the back of the minds of the politicians empowered by their respective and restless electorates as they head towards the negotiating table. They might also be tempted to ask how such special musicians’ passports will be allocated, by whom, and whether they could become highly-prized black market commodities attractive to smugglers, traffickers, Tory donors and ne’er-do-wells of divers kinds.


Will they be minded to help what is now a smaller, supplicant neighbour state? Let’s hope they won’t judge us by our actions and treat us accordingly. Our government and its press cheerleaders have treated our smaller neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, with what amounts to bullying contempt for the past three years, since the referendum. They have patronisingly dismissed Ireland’s concerns about the economic damage Brexit will inflict on their people in a way reminiscent of Britain’s historic disdain (sometimes outright cruelty) towards its westward neighbour over centuries of colonial rule. Remember when Theresa May went to an EU summit in in 2018 and asked, with the Irish and German heads of state in the room, apparently without irony, ‘how would you like it if someone forced you to carve up your country’? We all have to hope that EU negotiators, now we are bringing the begging bowl for access to the gigantic market on our doorstep, overlook how we have treated our closest neighbours in the recent and the distant past.


Perhaps they’ll take pity on us for the sake of Scotland, who never wanted this idiotic, retrogressive policy in the first place. If I were the MU I’d be asking Nicola Sturgeon if she’d make the appeal on behalf of all UK musicians. She’d get a far warmer reception than the Downing Street Massive and they might actually believe her when she said she cares about the livelihoods and well-being of the people she represents, including those from EU countries who have chosen to settle and work in Scotland, whom she has repeatedly, publicly welcomed and supported.


I am sure the experienced team at the Musicians’ Union are well aware of the challenges ahead that I have outlined above. They have an impressive track record of successful lobbying on behalf of their members. With any luck they will be supported by an effective, articulate new leader of the opposition in a few weeks’ time, too. Like so many of my fellow musicians I wish them all good fortune and fortitude in their daunting task. Clearly, the more people who sign their petition, the better, since it will fortify their resolve and reinforce their mandate. Here’s the link:


[p.s. to anticipate the tedious old chestnuts, ‘how did the Beatles manage to tour to Hamburg before we joined the EU’ and Rees-Mogg’s favourite nugget of historical stupidity, ‘how did German national Handel write his Messiah in England before the EU’s Freedom of Movement?’, here are my ‘oven-ready’ responses:


The Beatles had enormous and repeated customs/visa difficulties with respect to their Hamburg residencies, and if they hadn’t have left when they did the final time, George Harrison would have been deported because of them. The manner of international touring has changed beyond all recognition since the early 1960s, as have customs and security arrangements on all borders. International counter-terrorism wasn’t really at the top of governmental minds in the twenty years following WW2. Literally no-one would now even attempt to tour abroad with as little paperwork, preparation or legal documentation as the Fabs did back then, it simply wouldn’t happen. Try to take three mates and your instruments, these days, without visas, certified guarantees of employment or equipment carnets to, say, the USA or the Russian Federation, with the intention of playing a couple of months’ (unregulated, untaxed) casual work in one of their coastal resorts (with no given proof of accommodation or even an address) and see how far you get. Spoiler: no further than the check-in desk.


As for Herr Handel, a special law had to be passed by Parliament (Handel Naturalisation Act 1727) to allow him to settle and work in England, so unusual – and unlawful – was the concept of ‘freedom of movement’ of foreign nationals back then. As usual with Brexiters like JR-M, facts tend to be whatever the opposite is of what they say they are.]