Anger among UK musicians 'forgotten' in Brexit deal

London (AFP) –


Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly has garnered some of Britain's highest honours for her work. But such recognition is in stark contrast to the treatment experienced by musicians post-Brexit, she says.

Connolly called the government's failure to prioritise an agreement allowing musicians visa-free travel to Europe, after Britain finally quit all EU structures at the end of 2020, "absolutely outrageous".

"I feel that we have the right to be angry," she told AFP, emphasising the importance of early exposure to continental experience for British musicians to reach the highest levels.

Connolly, 57, who was made a dame by Queen Elizabeth II in 2017 for her services to music, has sung at the world's most prestigious opera venues.

But the singer explains that it would have been "impossible" to start her operatic career without performing extensively in Europe.

"I have very proudly flown the British flag in all of these places," Connolly said. "It's unfortunate that our government is not proud of us."

Since January, British artists must apply for visas to stay in European Union members for more than 30 days, with hundreds of pounds (euros, dollars) payable for some permits and weeks of administrative delays for approval.

The new rules have imperilled not just musicians wanting to tour multiple EU states, but their support crews including haulage companies hired to move stage equipment around Europe.

- Jarring notes in talks -

Deborah Annetts, the chief executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, said the lack of any provision for artists had been a "source of escalating concern".

After consulting with Britain's culture ministry and other government departments ahead of the 2020 EU agreement, Annetts said she was surprised no arrangements were made for musicians.

"It did feel as if we'd all been forgotten about," she said.

Against a backdrop of general recrimination between London and Brussels after Britain's departure from the EU, both sides have blamed each other for the failure to facilitate travel by musicians and other performers.

While Britain insists the blame lies with EU inflexibility during last year's trade negotiations, Brussels argues that London was fixated on ending freedom of movement for EU citizens coming to Britain.

Last week British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he shared the performers' frustration, adding the government was "working flat out" to address the issue with individual EU governments.

"Some of them are much, much better and forward leaning than others. Others we've still got progress to make," he said.

Annetts said the effect of the restrictions had been temporarily hidden by the Covid pandemic, with venues shuttered and travel curtailed. However, serious damage had already been done, she added.

"There is, at the moment, a cultural shift going on, because UK musicians are now seen as problematic," she said.

The implications would be "massive" for Britain's creative industries and the economy, Annetts added. "In terms of the standing of the UK, I don't think that can be underestimated."

- Odds against younger artists -

Dave O'Higgins, a jazz saxophonist who regularly tours in Europe, is also staring at uncertainty.

The London-based musician holds an Irish passport, so his own movement will not be restricted. But the changes will affect how he's paid, whether he can sell merchandise at European gigs, and whether his British bandmates can travel.

"I'm going to have to share the hit with them," said O'Higgins, who was in the 1980s pop group Matt Bianco.

"In combination with increased paperwork and bureaucratic fees and possibly individual visas for countries and who knows, it might make the difference between the whole enterprise being viable and not," he said.

The 56-year-old said he was concerned about the impact on the next generation of British musicians, saying he felt "desperately sad" for emerging performers hit first by the pandemic and now the Brexit fallout.

Nicky Spence, a Scottish operatic tenor based in London, said he also worried about the future for younger British artists, with visa costs sometimes more than a fee for a first recital on the continent.

"It's already difficult enough to get these gigs, but to then not actually be able to make it work financially, is very difficult," he said.

"The odds are already stacked against us. And that's why passion is involved in what we do," the singer said. "But it shouldn't be this bloody hard to try and have that career."