EU proposal for visa-free tours by musicians despite Brexit was rejected, No 10 admits

After days of insisting Brussels threw out a deal, government acknowledges it did spurn an offer – but refuses to explain why

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Thursday 14 January 2021 18:51 GMT
Kevin Brennan urges Boris Johnson to resolve musicians & visas row

No 10 has admitted an EU proposal to allow visa-free tours by musicians was rejected, apparently because of a belief it clashed with ending free movement.

After days of arguing Brussels threw out a deal, the government has acknowledged it did turn down a plan, as The Independent revealed – but has refused to explain the reasons for doing so.

A Downing Street spokesman said the offer “fell short” of what was required, but a source has said the reason was a fear it involved travel rights that undermined the aims of Brexit.

The plan would have allowed all short-stay workers to come for 90 days, it is claimed – despite the EU pushing to allow only a carved-out list of “paid activities”, including music tours.

Furthermore, EU citizens can come to the UK as tourists for up to six months anyway, the standard period for foreign visitors exempt from visas.

Music organisations said the admission made it even more important that ministers come clean about what happened in the negotiations – and find a solution, to lift the threat of musicians requiring work permits.

They had been repeatedly reassured that a Brexit deal would protect touring performers, as well as their support teams and equipment, in an industry worth £5.8bn a year to the UK economy.

Stars including folk singer Laura Marling and Charlatans frontman Tim Burgess have signed a parliamentary petition demanding visa-free work rights, backed by around 230,000 people.

The Incorporated Society of Musicians condemned “needless confusion” and urged the government “to put this issue to bed”.

“It would be hugely welcomed by the music sector and fulfil the government’s own commitment made over many months to achieve frictionless work travel for musicians and other performers,” said Deborah Annetts, its chief executive.

And a spokeswoman for the Musicians’ Union said: “We urgently need clarity from the UK government on why musicians and crew were not catered for in the Brexit negotiations.

“We have had no detailed information on what was discussed and we are still seeking clarity on various aspects of the agreement as it stands.”

A No 10 spokesman said: “The EU’s offer fell short of the UK’s proposals and would not have enabled touring by musicians.”

It pushed enquiries to the Department for Digital, Culture, Music and Sport, but it has refused to answer questions about why the EU offer was rejected – and whether the reason was a fear of weakening the policy of ending free movement.

However, Caroline Dinenage, the culture minister, hinted that was the explanation, arguing Brussels had been “conflating general freedom of movement/work with specific provision for musicians/artists”.

The fresh controversy came as Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, confirmed the UK had rebuffed Brussels, telling the Financial Times: “The British didn’t display any greater ambition.”

“We had a number of initial proposals on this,” he said, adding: “Of course, you have to be two to reach an agreement.”

He rubbished an article on the NME website, by Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, claiming: “I’m afraid it was the EU letting down music on both sides of the Channel – not us.”

The government has argued it “pushed for a more ambitious agreement which would have covered musicians and others, but our proposals were rejected by the EU”.

However, The Independent understands the UK proposal was only for a 30-day exemption for performers, less than the 90 days the EU put forward.

And the request was made under so-called “mode 4” exemptions – which the EU argues is for specialists, providing contracted services, not performers.

The stalemate throws the decision onto member states, with some hope that EU capitals will waive the work permit requirement unilaterally.

France has already done so, announcing at the weekend that no permits would be required for Britons “travelling for a sporting, cultural or scientific event”, for up to 90 days.

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