23 February 2022

Let’s get Britain’s world-leading musicians back on the road


Historically, an advantage of being set in a group of small islands floating free from the western coast of mainland Europe has been easy access to the rest of the world. Put together a decent navy, and you’re good to go scurrying off around the globe, bringing back spices from India, tea from China, oils from West Africa or bubonic plague from Gascony.

Being that precious stone set in the silver sea also offers a ready route to market for anything produced at home. In the past, that’s meant coal shipped off to mainland Europe, woollen textiles carted as far afield as the Americas and, indeed, parliamentary democracy exported sometimes rather forcibly into the hands of other nations.

And arguably our most successful export continues to absorb the rest of the world. The UK’s influence has been built – and today primarily rests – on its cultural influence. Britain’s creative imagination from football to fashion, poetry to photography, has not only been readily embraced abroad but has allowed our merchants of ideas to reach the parts that others have failed to reach.

But now our creative thinkers have been stopped in their tracks. Yes, leaving the EU has given the Government a unique opportunity to shape our future, to define ourselves in our own image. I see nothing more than golden horizons and glittering prizes ahead. But for one sector, this panacea is still out of reach.

While the Government has forged trade deals with almost 70 countries, including the EU, worth £750bn, it’s come up short when it comes to British musicians touring the EU. Impenetrable piles of red tape. Cabotage, carnets, visas and work permit charges mean that UK musicians and artists – and their vast entourage of crew and support workers – have, since January 2020, been prevented from properly entertaining the continent.

In many ways, the pandemic has kept the problem shielded from view. But, as Covid begins to recede, like the tide going out, we can see who has been swimming without their bathing costumes. A desperate situation is revealing itself.

It’s no exaggeration to describe the UK’s music industry as world leading. Domestically, in a good year it’s worth some £5.8 billion to us and keeps almost 200,000 people happily employed. Figures which, by way of contrast, vastly outpace our steel and fisheries industries combined.

The industry is a showcase for Britain abroad. Shining a spotlight, often quite literally, on the homegrown talent we have for decades exported for the joy of the many-headed, and thereby extending the cultural influence and the soft power it induces into the hearts and minds of billions.

Given these incontestable facts, my expectation was that Lord Frost would have had the music industry at the top of his headed paper as he sat down with his team of crack negotiators opposite their EU counterparts. And, similarly, I assumed that the EU would be dripping with enthusiasm to ensure not only that their disparate peoples should maintain their regular dose of musical enlightenment, but also that their own artists could tour the UK unimpeded.

But I was wrong. Before he chucked in the towel, Frost must have lost that headed paper down the back of the sofa before heading to his meetings, preferring to save his energy for the long battles over Northern Ireland and, of course, our fisheries. A deal for the creative industries has been left undone.

I’d need a few hours to describe the ludicrous complexities around cabotage and carnets: the movement of trucks, equipment, instruments and workers across the EU and the unworkable restrictions placed on touring musicians. Cabotage rules were designed to prevent Russian trucks from dumping goods in the EU. They’re now being used to prevent UK musicians spreading pleasure across the EU. Visa rules were designed for migration and trade, not entertainment and cultural exchange. They are being misused.

From trance DJs to pop start-ups, from rock icons to symphony orchestras, tours have been cancelled, concerts delayed, and audiences left bereft as the UK’s touring cash registers fail to ring. The EU market is crucial to the UK’s creative arts industry. It’s our largest market and, in addition to the unfettered joy we bring to the continent, without it we would all be the poorer. Economically, artistically, culturally and diplomatically.

There are six EU Member States that may require work permits for musicians and performers for any short-term commercial music performance in their countries: Croatia, Greece Portugal, Bulgaria, Malta and Cyprus. Portugal is a huge overseas market for UK musicians, with Croatia being especially important to DJs.  Spain has recently been liberated from this list, as visa-free touring has just been agreed, but this is too little and too slow. If the EU are unwilling to reopen the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the Government needs to grasp the nettle, lasso the representatives of each state, sit them down and hammer out agreements based on common sense.

As the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Music, I’m chairing an ongoing Inquiry into all these issues. It’s been a revealing journey so far. The picture emerging is one of an entirely unnecessary ordeal, destroying our colossally successful, world-beating industry. And it’s simple stuff to fix. No splitting of the atom required. Just sensible reciprocal agreements. As legendary concert promoter Harvey Goldsmith told the Inquiry, this could all be sorted out over lunch.

Let’s not undermine our position on the international stage and lose British jobs and talent. We’re not exporting bubonic plague, we’re exporting pleasure.

So I ask the Government, let’s dig that lost paper out of the sofa, get that lunch booked in, and get our incredible creative industry back on the road.

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David Warburton is MP for Somerton and Frome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.