Freelancers Make Theatre Work attended the Trade Unlocked 2023 conference at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham last month.

Freelancers Make Theatre Work attended the Trade Unlocked 2023 conference at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham last month, amplifying the voice of the freelance theatre workforce at this conference discussing and addressing the challenges of the current trading environment in the UK and globally.

Organised by Best for Britain in partnership with the UK Trade and Business Commission, the aim of the conference was to boost the national conversation about how to deal with the fallout from Brexit from an international trade perspective, based heavily around the recommendations of the UKTBC’s recent report, “Trading our way to prosperity – A blueprint for policymakers”. 

Trade Unlocked stand

The outlook of the day was very much from the former “Remain” viewpoint, but with the approach of looking forward with pragmatism, rather than revisiting old arguments. The current Westminster government was notable by its absence, despite having reportedly been invited to give the keynote address, which is concerning given the possibility of them being in power for another 18 months ahead of the next General Election. By contrast, the Labour party threw a couple of fairly heavyweight spokesmen at it, in Nick Thomas-Symonds (Shadow International Trade) and David Lammy (Shadow Foreign Secretary). Their line was very disciplined and consistent – some might say rigid – as we’ve come to expect from the Labour front bench recently, but notably included repeated firm commitments to securing an EU Visa Waiver for performing artists. Lammy also committed a future Labour government to re-establishing a regular structural dialogue between the UK and EU, which has been allowed to fall by the wayside – a crucial factor in the lack of any significant progress so far on this and many other issues. 

‘Where there’s a political will, there’s usually a way, it seems.’

In a breakout forum, Hilary Benn, as co-convenor of the UKTBC, was asked how realistic a prospect reopening negotiations on a Visa Waiver Agreement with the EU would be, given that a few commentators have recently expressed scepticism about whether the review of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (the “Brexit Deal”), currently scheduled for some time in 2024/5, will involve any significant revision. Benn replied that he considers it an entirely realistic prospect, given that varying and/or adding to the TCA is explicitly included in the review clause, which was reassuring to hear. But he also emphasised that it would require the political will on both sides to make it happen, and so the UK needs to give a lot more thought to what the benefits might be for the EU from this or any other proposed renegotiation. The EU operates for the benefit of its members, so the question that needs answering is, what’s in it for them? Benn added pointedly that it would also need this or any future UK government to behave consistently in a manner which inspires trust in its international trading partners.

Where there’s a political will, there’s usually a way, it seems. Of course, securing a Visa Waiver Agreement would only be the first step in finding solutions to the challenges now facing the UK’s performing arts workforce when it comes to touring and working in the EU, and much campaigning work lies ahead in ensuring that progress continues far beyond that first step. 

But for the moment, all in all the atmosphere at the conference was remarkably positive and cautiously optimistic, with a sense that there may at last be a few glimpses of light at the end of a very long and gloomy tunnel.