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Labour to open EU talks on ‘new agreement’ to end post-Brexit crisis forcing musicians to abandon tours

Exclusive: Brussels will be asked to revive visa-waiver offer – to pile pressure on government to end its refusal to act

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Sunday 19 September 2021 13:24 BST
David Frost dismisses Elton John's anger over Brexit touring crisis

Labour plans to open its own talks on a “new agreement” with the EU to end the post-Brexit crisis forcing musicians to abandon tours, piling pressure on the government to finally act.

Brussels will be asked to revive its offer of visa-free visits across the EU for creative artists and to remove huge new fees and red tape to transport equipment, The Independent can reveal.

Keir Starmer’s party has been criticised for a reluctance to reopen Brexit wounds by committing to plug gaps in the skeleton trade deal reached by Boris Johnson, but will now make its own move to rescue touring.

Alison McGovern, Labour’s shadow culture minister, said: “The job for us now – given what the Tories have failed to do – is to go and have those practical conversations.”

The move has been hailed as a potential breakthrough by big-name musicians hoping it pushes ministers to reconsider a visa-waiver scheme, which the UK rejected last year.

Speaking to The Independent, award-winning singer-songwriter Katie Melua welcomed “steps being made towards a solution”, while Joff Oddie, guitarist with the Mercury Prize-nominated rock band Wolf Alice, urged the government to listen on “an issue that could make or break the UK music industry”.

The Society of Musicians has warned how artists are “professionally paralysed” – with many tours “unviable” – telling a parliamentary inquiry: “We fear our industry is in grave jeopardy because of Brexit.”

Its survey revealed an alarming picture where just 43 per cent of touring musicians plan to visit the EU in future and 42 per cent would consider quitting the UK in order to pursue their careers.

Mr Johnson made a high-profile pledge to “fix” the crisis, but the minister put in charge of that – David Frost, the Brexit minister – appeared to wash his hands of the controversy and refused to say it would be resolved.

Ministers were then condemned, including by Elton John, for wrongly claiming 19 of the 27 EU countries are offering visa and work permit-free access when severe restrictions still exist.

On Friday, Elton John said he is “on the warpath” over the failure to end the crisis, accusing the prime minister of snubbing his request for a meeting.

Now Ms McGovern has revealed Labour’s plans to end the stalemate by opening its own negotiations with the European Commission and other organisations in the EU, including trade unions.

She told The Independent: “What we know from creative people – whether they work in theatre production, opera, or are gigging bands – is that what the Tories agreed is not sufficient.

“Poisonous red tape is holding back creative people from working across Europe and going on tour. This is one of our finest British exports and that’s why we’ve got to do more.

“Everybody is fed up now of waiting for the Tories to figure this out. They haven’t negotiated anything new and that’s why we want to see a new, additional agreement.”

Poisonous red tape is holding back creative people from working across Europe and going on tour. This is one of our finest British exports and that’s why we’ve got to do more

Alison McGovern, Labour shadow culture minister

The deal would cover all the key problems encountered by touring artists, an EU-wide visa-waiver programme, work permit exemptions, a deal on “cabotage” for vehicles and “carnets” for transporting instruments.

Ms McGovern, shadow Brexit minister Jenny Chapman, and Jo Stevens, the shadow culture secretary, plan to visit the commission this autumn – following the precedent of talks with opposition politicians during the Brexit crisis.

Labour stresses that the initiative is not about unpicking the Christmas trade and co-operation agreement (TCA), but securing an addition to it.

The EU has always stressed it was the UK that walked away from the talks on a “mobility chapter” and that the proposal has never been withdrawn.

Melua hailed Labour’s announcement, stressing the red tape now involved in touring, telling The Independent: “It’s good to see steps being made towards a solution.

“We rely on touring so much, I just did two shows in Germany with my band and the paperwork we needed for our guitars seemed like overkill even to the customs guard.”

Oddie said: “This is an issue that could make or break the UK music industry’s position and reputation.

We rely on touring so much, I just did two shows in Germany with my band and the paperwork we needed for our guitars seemed like overkill even to the customs guard

Katie Melua

“As it stands, and without further intervention, EU touring will be unviable for all but the most established artists and we’ll see a reduction on new talent breaking through. The government should consider the calls from Labour very carefully, stop paying lip service to the industry and start to take a proactive approach in engaging with the EU on this topic.”

Deborah Annetts, chief executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, said: “We welcome Labour’s support for a visa-waiver agreement, which would be a big step forward in enabling artists to tour in Europe with ease once more.”

And Horace Trubridge, general secretary of the Musicians’ Union, said: “Very little has happened to cure the problems caused by the TCA. With Labour’s help, we are much more optimistic that a breakthrough might be possible.”

The crisis delivered by what one senior Tory MP called “a no-deal Brexit” for touring artists has triggered huge protests demanding a government rethink.

The #LetTheMusicMove campaign is backed by Radiohead, New Order, Wolf Alice, The Chemical Brothers, Annie Lennox, Biffy Clyro, Anna Calvi, Bob Geldof, Midge Ure and members of Blur and Portishead, among many others.

The Carry on Touring petition secured almost 300,000 signatures – triggering a Commons debate – and the campaign sent an open letter to ministers, demanding a retraction of the claim that performers can tour easily in 19 countries.

It points out that far from offering 90 days of permit-free touring as suggested, many offer very few days – and that the UK has secured no improvements through its talks with national capitals.

But in the Commons last week, the government again ruled out a rethink, insisting it is up to the EU to agree to an original UK proposal that Brussels said was far more unlimited and unworkable.

“We will continue our intensive negotiations [with nation states], but we have to accept that this is not in our control,” claimed Julia Lopez, a junior culture minister.

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