By Bill Bankes-Jones
In the last few weeks I’ve already lost five cherished people from my own particular community:
- David Johnson, larger than life theatre producer, hugely generous and the hugest fun
- Katharine Whitehorn, pathfinding journalist and unlikely friend from when I was a student
- Lucy Hale, inspirational composer, not even 30, gone even before we had the chance to make the work together we had hoped for
- Elijah Moshinsky colleague/mentor/adversary and Titan of the opera world with a fierce commitment to making great art
- Andrew Greenwood, conductor, the sort of person you’d think would always be there, “universally liked” as someone said yesterday.
Two were covid-19, one certainly caused by the pandemic, and as anyone who has been bereaved since March will know, any death in this time is really messed up. I say this not for sympathy, but as a reminder that this is happening to us all. Everyone is bereaved, losing loved ones, ill or traumatised by the life and death facts of what is happening.
All the other stresses we are facing, and frequent shrillness of dialogues are happening against this background - or rather behind this foreground - of extreme stress, grief, suffering. It’s so important to remember this, whoever you are dealing with. We’re coiled springs, we sometimes snap, but we really are all in it together.
Anyway, alongside all this, last week began both with that beginning of term feeling, time to get on with stuff after secretly rather enjoying an Isolation Festive Season, and a scary article in the Independent on Sunday 10th January breaking the news that “UK ‘rejected offer’ of visa-free tours by musicians in EU, despite blaming Brussels for permit blow”. I had already posted something in our Slack (online workspace) on 6th January gently saying we should keep an eye on this, but over that weekend our beloved Adele Thomas quite rightly said we should be writing a letter, taking some forceful action.
BANG! It turned out to be the perfect excuse to avoid tidying my metaphorical room by hurling myself at this problem, and boy did it need hurling at!
The Independent triggered an escalating row in the press and, indeed between the EU and our government. Sadly and maddeningly, the headline and article are riddled with inaccuracies and vagueness, as are most of the press, industry, EU and UK Government claims and counter-claims that follow. Most shockingly, perhaps, our own Prime Minister got it completely back to front in Parliament last Wednesday, completely confusing visas and permission to work.
Anyway, I’m ahead of myself. Monday and Tuesday involved a MASSIVE amount of research trying to get to the bottom of what was actually going on. If you want to fix it, ask a freelancer, so hats off to occasional colleague of twenty plus years, baritone Paul Carey Jones, whose blog is still the most accurate summation of the situation that I’ve seen. But there were an awful lot of articles to read, petitions to take in, websites to examine, social networking from friends and colleagues having an awful time with immigration offices, and even the odd webinar to attend.
With true FMTW team spirit an informal working group was clustering round this issue anyway, with half a dozen of us keen to roll our sleeves up and solve the problem. Unusually, our working group expanded for this very tricky issue to include ‘outsiders’ with real knowledge who could help us get the facts right. [Special thanks for sharing their knowledge and expertise to Mark Pemberton Director, Association of British Orchestras, Cathy Graham, Director, Music, British Council, Laura Canning, Director of Artistic Administration, Garsington Opera, Simon Ash, Loesje Sanders Ltd (agent), Anna Gregg, Administrative Director, Tête à Tête, Sarah Playfair (Freelance Casting Director), Nicholas Payne, (Director, Opera Europa), Lucy Schaufer (Mezzo & Wild Plum Arts)]. With quite a lot of this heavy artillery at our fact finding meeting on Thursday, we felt ready and primed to hack away at the letter I had drafted for Oliver Dowden and his cabinet colleagues.
And hack we did. When we hit an urgent issue that needs a letter to land fast on the right desk, we tend to form a cluster and slug it out online in Zoom while jointly editing a google document. Breathless, exhausting and intense, it’s also time consuming and in a way thrilling and huge fun. We see each others’ cursors moving text around, splurging, cutting, correcting as we each do the same. I hope it’s effective. [Our letter about the failure of the Culture Recovery Fund to reach freelancers certainly had traction.]
Anyway, two hours later this UK-nationals-working-in-Europe letter was in some kind of shape; another hour or two after our regular Friday meeting the next day, it was ready to go to a political lobbyist for checking, back over the weekend a little more to-ing and fro-ing and it is now winging its way to the powers that be. At the same time, a slightly modified version has gone up on our website as a template for anyone to modify and send to their MP, and we seem to have a new high functioning recruit for our FMTW core group in Paul. HURRAH!
And what are the facts? I wanted to set out our process first, and as I already said, anyone wanting to get stuck in to the facts can follow the links to Paul’s blog and our MPs’ letter. But in brief…
- The Deal: The EU and The UK both dropped the ball trying to fix the issue in advance, and are now blaming each other. It’s not really going to help now to get bogged down in this, but it is interesting to compare the government’s position, set out in petition responses, in 2019 when it promised everything, and 2021 when it is now quite messy. Anyway, whatever the case this is all basically sour grapes, we need solutions.
- Visas: all UK Citizens can travel anywhere in Europe visa-free for 90 days out of any 180, which in most cases is hopefully enough.
- Permissions to work this is where it gets sticky. As a result of The Deal, neither the UK nor the EU have the power to negotiate these permissions across Europe, they are subject to individual negotiations with each country. And this is in any case across the whole EEA, not just the EU. Some appear to present no problems, some may cost, be tricky to arrange or just confuse the immigration office you have to deal with. The clearest guidance we’ve seen country by country is on the UK Arts Network Website, partly because it is very brief and refers you to each country’s own website.
- Emerging artists are liable to be more afflicted by this than established, as they won’t have agents, determined and powerful European employers to fight their way through this, nor necessarily the experience to manage themselves. We’ve asked for action on this in our letter.
- Kevin Brennan MP managed to squeeze a promise out of the Prime Minister of an urgent meeting with senior MPs to discuss this. I’m not sure where this has gone yet, though.
Basically it’s a right old mess. Well done if you’ve made it this far!
Hopefully, you found above the links you need for more information, and as ever, do please write to your MP. Back to reliving some of the nicer memories of the people I have lost while tidying my metaphorical bedroom floor. Have a great week, all!
FOOTNOTE, 14:30 Tuesday 19th January 2020:
Just to add to the breathlessness, I’m just out of watching an Urgent Question Debate in the house of commons where around 40 MPs grilled Digital & Culture Minister Caroline Dineage on “Visa arrangements for UK musicians in the European Union”. You can read those notes here. Gratifying to note a move towards the kind of solutions we were proposing (the UK Government to drive rapid improvement of the information about the effect of this on UK freelancers, individual negotiations with the trickier EU states) though disappointing to note the recriminations go on and on and on and on…