Boris Johnson’s vow to ‘fix’ Brexit crisis forcing musicians to abandon tours is condemned as ‘a sham’

Exclusive: ‘Betrayed’ artists offered only clearer guidance on ‘the bureaucracy involved’ in performing in EU, The Independent learns – not a solution

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 28 April 2021 12:36 BST
The prime minister was first alerted to the crisis in mid-January

Boris Johnson’s vow to “fix” the Brexit crisis forcing musicians to abandon tours has led to no more than offers of advice on the huge new costs and red tape, angry industry groups say – triggering accusations it is “a sham”.

One month after the promise was made, to a committee of MPs, insiders from meetings with the government have lashed out at a failure to act which has left desperate performers “no further forward”.

The prime minister insisted ministers were “working flat out” to find a solution, that the situation was “absolutely fine” with some countries and that David Frost, his Brexit negotiator, is “in charge”.

But meetings with industry representatives are described as “absolutely awful”, one alleging they were being sent out “as guinea pigs” to report back on the extent of their plight.

The hardline Lord Frost is “the blockage”, another said, preventing any progress, adding: “He and the Foreign Office are the ones slowing it down.”

Multiple sources said the only help on the table is to draw up clearer guidance for “the bureaucracy involved in visiting each member state”, which, itself, has yet to emerge.

“We are no further forward. There is no urgency, there is no focus from senior figures in government on this,” David Martin, chief executive of the Featured Artists Coalition, told The Independent.

Horace Trubridge, general secretary, of the Musicians’ Union, said: “Our patience is wearing thin and we have seen no signs whatsoever that ‘ministers are working flat out to fix the problem’.”

And Kevin Brennan, a Labour MP on the Commons culture committee which is investigating the crisis, said: “So far, this looks like a sham process.

“Meanwhile, artists are losing work and their businesses are folding and the government is doing nothing. They are betraying the music sector.”

It is nearly four months since The Independent revealed that the UK had rejected a Brussels proposal to rescue visa and permit-free tours by musicians and other artists of the EU, insisting “taking back control” of borders must come first.

A report by the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) has laid bare how artists have been left “professionally paralysed” – appearances “unviable” because of the time and expense of securing paperwork costing many hundreds of pounds.

Under pressure, Mr Johnson told the Commons liaison committee, on 24 March: “It is hugely important and they are also a massive export industry. So we must fix this.

“We are working flat out, bilaterally, with each individual government,” he said, adding: “Some of them it’s been absolutely fine. Others we’ve still got progress to make.”

However, The Independent can reveal that:

* Despite the prime minister saying Lord Frost is “in charge”, the tiny Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) remains responsible for any talks – despite having “no leverage”, as one insider put it;

* Lord Frost refused for weeks to commit to appearing before the culture committee to explain what is happening – and only did so when set a firm deadline to agree. He will now give evidence on 10 June;

* No approach has been made to Brussels to try to rescue an EU-wide agreement, the only way to remove the need for visas;

* DCMS did not dispute that ministers have held no discussions with their counterparts in EU capitals; and

* It is also unable to name any EU countries where the touring situation promises to be – as Mr Johnson claimed – “absolutely fine”.

Elton John has led a protest by scores of music giants, accusing the government of having “screwed up” and demanding it “go back and renegotiate”.

But other touring sectors have also been hit, the National Theatre saying it could no longer afford to put on blockbuster shows including The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

A new letter from Britain’s leading cultural organisations, including Royal Opera and the Royal Shakespeare Company, is warning time is running out to solve the “crisis” and the businesses will “go under”.

Deborah Annetts, the ISM’s chief executive, told The Independent: “Despite what the prime minister said, there is no evidence of any progress: indeed the number of problems facing the sector seem to be increasing.”

And Mr Martin, whose organisation has members of Blur and Radiohead on its board, drew a contrast with Mr Johnson launching into action to help kill off football’s European Super League.

“Just like football, music is iconic for this country – so why on earth is one being supported in the way it is and the other left behind?” he asked.

A government spokesperson insisted it was “engaging with member states”, with a DCMS-led working group set up “to support cultural and creative professionals who temporarily work in the EU”.

“The working group will provide new guidance to help artists understand what’s required in different countries,” the spokesperson added.

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