Johnson’s Brexit Deal Car Crash Threatens The Livelihood Of Musicians

By Roberta Noonan

Over the Christmas break, we are seeing the slow car crash unfold that is Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.

From Johnson’s triumphalism at his so called last minute deal ‘success’, it is now clear the weaknesses are emerging as experts unpick it.

For musicians, the problems are all too clear. There is no system in place to allow us to tour on the same terms as when we were in the EU. The Tories simply don’t care about us. 
Fishing rights have grabbed all the headlines – an industry worth £446m versus music, which is worth £5.6bn. Then there’s the creative industries as a whole, which we are part of, and worth £111bn. A contribution to our economy which has been completely ignored by this Government in their Brexit negotiations. 

This is not a level playing field of interests. It’s not even based on facts, or on economic need, or in logic, or even in the national interest. It’s a raw emotional pull to create something long gone, by a group so out of touch with the necessities of a modern trading nation reliant on our European partners, that it is frankly embarrassing for us as a country. All trade deals compromise at some level on sovereignty, by pooling it in a common interest. This is a reality that those championing Brexit choose to ignore as they chase unicorns.

We have to hope that these shenanigans have not burnt all of our bridges to be able to influence our European neighbours at a more human and grassroots level. In order to get the conditions for cultural exchange and the work we need, we now have to bypass this shambles of a Government. We need to go direct to our friends in Europe, nation by nation.
The Brexit deal Johnson has ‘negotiated’, which in essence is Theresa May’s reheated deal, has 2 key flaws for us as musicians and trade unionists:

Firstly, musicians face more costs if wanting to tour in the EU. Things we took for granted, like freedom of movement to do the gigs, and sell merchandise, which often meant the difference between financial sink or swim, have gone. In its place we’ll face having to navigate work visas, carnets, health insurance and rules around importing goods and VAT. It will make touring in the EU financially unviable for many grassroots artists. Of course, the big acts will probably be just fine as they’ll have the financial clout to adapt. The rest of us not so much. In return, it looks like EU musicians coming here will have to fork out for a £244 visa, have £1200 in their bank account, and a gig sponsor. Why would any EU state, which is allowed to set its own work visa rules for non EU citizens, bend over backwards for a jingoistic state like us if their own musicians get treated like this by the UK Govt? It’s not all bad though, it looks like France has decided cultural events workers can benefit from the 90 day free visa scheme they have. Small mercies. Let’s hope we can persuade other EU states to follow France’s lead to shame this hapless Tory Government into doing something positive. However, it will take concerted efforts from us musicians, in partnership with sister unions, here and in Europe. That’s where the pressure needs to be. We are not powerless. We are voters, wealth creators, and have a voice in our society and a stake in our continental well-being.

Secondly, the social chapter provisions on things like worker rights, whilst in the deal, are less than future-proofed. What’s to stop those ERG Tory MPs voting for this Brexit deal, and then later on, watering down our rights as workers? Well, nothing in this deal, as there is no regulatory protection. If we lose things like health & safety provisions, or working time protections, we’d have to rely on our sister unions in the EU to complain to the EU Commission. Complaints that would be necessary to get the EU to take action against the UK at any attempt by our Government to destabilise the level playing field on rights – which negatively impact trade. Of course, at home, it could also mean waves of industrial action as workers fight any loss of rights. Unfortunately, the same circumstances apply for our environmental rights. And we all know that this Government are in hock to global capital tax dodgers, and fossil fuel burners as they have been hijacked by right wing climate change deniers. 

The future, for musicians, trade unionists, and indeed the country, is going to be pretty rocky for a number of years, sadly.

So where do we go now? What should we do?

It seems obvious to say that to get what we want we are going to have to work closely with everyone in the cultural sector, industry bodies, friendly politicians, and sister trade unions here and in Europe. We are going to have to apply pressure in a pan-European way to build a wider movement to force this one-trick-pony Government of ours into a U-turn. We’ll also have to work together with our UK trade union colleagues, and European trade unions, to fight any erosions in the social chapter provisions. This Government may have decided that services to and for our nearest trading partners are now more or less redundant to them, but we must not drive into this cul de sac of sink holes made by them.
To date, all the lobbying of the UK Government to give us a musicians’ touring passport have amounted to nothing. Pretty much in the same way the lobbying for the plugging of the SEISS gaps during Covid has resulted in nothing. This is not unique to us, it’s the same for all the cultural unions. This Government is sending us a message. So, it’s time to send them one.

We are going to need a plan to fight back, work with other unions here and in the EU, and take the gloves off. The softly softly approach has failed. It’s time for action. As an industry we can’t afford to let others set the narrative. Unfortunately, petitions and ministerial discussion, whilst worthwhile, have failed to resolve our grievances. But I do believe that working with our European partners – unions, politicians, industry bodies etc – to ease visas in their countries, is the only way forward, state by state if necessary. We cannot expect anything from the ideologue Tories in Government. 

We need two fronts however, three if we count defending the social chapter elements on worker rights. So, our cause should also be about campaigning for a wider ‘cultural workers’ permit’ here and in Europe. A cheap, if not free, simple to obtain and administer system beyond the narrowness of one scheme dedicated to musicians, or actors, or technicians. United we stand should be what we now practice. And as musicians we are resilient and have much stamina when it comes to practice don’t we?! So, if you’re a musician and not in the union, join the fight. If you’re not a musician, you should still join the most appropriate union for your trade.

The future is for us to write – not for our Government or others hostile to us to write it for us, and who in any case, are embedded in a distant past that most of us don’t want. So, if we want to write that future, make it happen, then surely it is up to us grasp the initiative. We should aim high and think bold.

We need to:

1. Work directly to ease work visa restrictions in EU countries

2. Work to defend the social chapter on worker rights

3. Work here and in Europe to get a cultural work permit to allow us to tour unrestricted

Published by MU Members for Change

MU Members For Change is a broad and diverse coalition of members within the Musicians’ Union. It exists to facilitate communication between members; to aid the delivery of member voice to the Executive Committee; and to promote democracy within the Musicians’ Union. Enquiries should be sent to:

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