The government has been called spineless after a report it rejected a deal with the EU that would have given musicians visa-free touring on the continent, saving acts from expensive and potentially prohibitive post-Brexit bureaucracy.
The Independent reported that despite the government’s claim Brussels had rejected an “ambitious” reciprocal touring arrangement, an EU source said it was the UK that refused to accept European acts having 90 days of visa-free travel.
The unnamed source, who was said to be close to the negotiations, was reported as saying in “agreements with third countries, that [work] visas are not required for musicians. We tried to include it, but the UK said no”.
The source accused the government of lying about the negotiations, and said the UK refused to agree because “they were ending freedom of movement”.
The Department of Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) had released a statement that said the UK had “pushed for a more ambitious agreement with the EU”, which would have covered musicians but its “proposals were rejected.”
Priti Patel’s immigration reforms were blamed for the tougher restrictions on touring EU musicians, which require them to apply for visas for stays of more than 30 days and provide proof of savings and a sponsorship certificate.
The DCMS stood by its original statement, reiterating its claim that it “pushed for a more ambitious agreement with the EU on the temporary movement of business travellers, which would have covered musicians”, while dismissing the story, calling it “incorrect and misleading speculation from anonymous EU sources”.
Radiohead’s Thom Yorke responded to the report by calling the government spineless, while others demanded strong collective action as the music industry struggles to cope with the impact of Covid-19 and the prospect of costly EU touring.
Horace Trubridge, the general secretary of the Musicians’ Union, called for the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, to clarify what occurred, saying the situation was unbelievable after months of campaigning for “musicians’ passports” that would allow visa and permit-free travel.
The composer, broadcaster and crossbench peer Michael Berkeley said he had submitted an urgent question to the Lord Speaker over the issue. If “the story holds up then it would mean that, albeit by omission, we have been misled about these negotiations,” he said.
Labour said that if it was confirmed the government had stopped musicians from touring in Europe to “make a political point, then music fans will not forgive them”.
A petition backed by musicians including Laura Marling, Biffy Clyro and Dua Lipa has amassed more than 200,000 signatures and calls for the 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 and carnet exception for touring equipment”.
Failure to agree a bloc-wide arrangement that means acts no longer need to acquire work permits for every European country they visit could rule out or dramatically curtail EU touring, according to musicians.
Bands and orchestras said the bureaucracy could stop them from travelling to Europe, describing Covid-19 restrictions and the post-Brexit requirements a “double whammy” to an already devastated music industry.