By Paul Carey Jones
In hindsight, it seemed just too good to be true. And as with most situations where that’s the case, it was.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport launched a press release last Wednesday, with their Twitter account stating that “After extensive discussions we can confirm that performers don’t need visas or work permits for short-term tours in 19 EU Member States including France, Germany and Italy.” The wording and tone, intentionally or otherwise, seemed to herald a breakthrough.
I was away at the time so could only give it some passing attention. Call me an old cynic, but it seemed slightly far-fetched that Dowden & Co. had been given the Churchillian authority to bring most of Europe together in a co-ordinated and standardised arrangement for British artists.
Predictably enough, it was more or less the proverbial nothingburger, amounting to a summary of the existing arrangements for third nation citizens travelling to work as performing artists in those EU Member States.
As the composer Howard Goodall put it, “I suppose if someone steals your car then seven months later gives you back the steering wheel, it's progress of a kind.” That this steering wheel was wrapped in shiny paper and ribbons, and so at first glance looked like an exciting new prospect, was hardly any consolation.
In fairness to DCMS, the package did contain a couple of potentially useful gifts - it seems to amount to a degree of clarification in the positions of Italy and the Czech Republic, for example. And more than that, to have these arrangements in writing and (we infer, pending more details) confirmed between governments at an official level can only help British citizens faced with crossing borders for work purposes from now on. In practice, the lack of clarity and established precedent has been one of the major short-term issues.
But anyone whose heart raced at the prospect of this being a great leap forward can only have been disappointed on closer inspection. The hard fact remains that the UK, having revealed its hand by declaring its (pretty generous) visa and work permit requirements for EU performing artists coming here before the negotiations over the withdrawal agreement had even started in earnest, has left itself with no leverage when asking EU nations collectively or individually for the same in return. What’s in it for them, after all?
And going any further with those reciprocal arrangements on the British side would require a paradigm shift in the fundamental raison d’être of the Home Office in its current form. They exist to “Take Back Control Of Our Borders”. This means that freedom of movement, however necessary to the economic well-being of the UK economy or its citizens, is A Bad Thing. Asking them to change their minds on that is like inviting Richard Dawkins to join you at Evensong: the likelihood is you’ll be in for a long wait.
So where can we look for the faintest ray of hope?
The Prussian General Helmuth von Moltke memorably stated that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. And the ultimate test of Brexit, up to now an article of hypothetical faith, was always going to be when reality first bit.
With ominous rumblings from the Road Haulage Association about the viability of the UK’s goods supply chain over the next few weeks, and shortages already appearing on some supermarket shelves, the acid test may shortly be upon us. However blasé much of the British population has been about Brexit in the abstract so far, the prospect of British Army trucks carrying out humanitarian food drops to its own citizens would surely be a wake-up call to even the most politically disengaged members of the public.
The reasons for the current critical shortage of HGV drivers are numerous, and intricately linked - reading up on them reminds me very much of the complexity of the impact on the current situation for theatre freelancers. But there can be no doubting that Brexit is a major factor in this impending crisis; and that the Government may well be forced at some point to consider relaxing border controls for lorry drivers and their goods.
Should that happen, it’s a concrete example of how freedom of movement, of both goods and people, is a vital element in our modern economy and way of life. And that’s the fundamental principle which needs to be established in the minds of the British public if a closer relationship with the EU is to become a vote-winner.
That is what ultimately has to be our goal - not just for musicians or performing artists or theatre workers, but for all UK citizens. If we plead ourselves as a unique case requiring special treatment, at some point some crisis will inevitably kick us down the pecking order of critical workers.
But if we can keep our eye on the bigger picture, and stand in solidarity with the needs of the UK workforce, and population, as a whole, there’s a glimmer of hope of winning the long-term argument.
There’s no quick solution to this, no magic wand to be waved, given our current circumstances. But if we keep our nerve and stand united, at some point, the irresistible force will eventually overcome the immovable object. Sooner or later, something’s gotta give.