In any normal year, UK artists would flock to the continent to show Europeans the best of our culture. This year, that’s going to be a lot harder. It’s not just because we’re in a pandemic: with vaccine rollouts and receding second waves in many countries, there’s cautious but genuine hope that Covid-19 will not cause tours to be cancelled. But there’s a more insidious enemy: the morass of red tape caused by Brexit. The Guardian reported yesterday that the National Theatre has shelved plans to tour The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time because of uncertainty over visa requirements. 

We asked four major British orchestras about their plans for touring this year: they identified six distinct areas in which restrictions now apply to them as a result of Brexit:

  • Visas: each country has different conditions as to what visas might be required by UK nationals crossing their border for different lengths and purposes of stay.
  • Work permits: each country has different rules as to what documentation a travelling artist may require, how to apply for it and how likely it is to be granted.
  • ATA Carnets: when you take equipment across borders, customs officials check it against a list at entry and exit to ensure that you’re not engaged in a covert bit of import/export. When your truck contains gear for a full symphony orchestra, that list-checking is quite an undertaking (it can be worse still for a rock tour).
  • CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species): the use of rare woods in some musical instruments may mean that they require certificates.
  • Cabotage: currently, an orchestra’s truck coming from the UK may only stop twice in one country and once in a second before having to return to the UK. That makes a typical multi-stop tour impossible.
  • Social security: in some cases, orchestras currently have to pay social security costs for their staff both in the UK and in the country to which they’re touring – although a solution to this is apparently on the way.

All four orchestras we spoke to remained committed to their touring plans. All four highlighted the uncertainty as the thing that concerned them most: they’re simply not able to identify all the rules that will apply and the full list of compliance steps they must take. There’s only one certainty: a giant increase in the amount of form-filling and bureaucratic delay, bringing cost and difficulty with it. For some, that extra cost will eventually prove deadly (UK orchestras, it was pointed out, already look expensive compared to their continental counterparts). Covid-19 remains the biggest fear for 2021, but the effects of Brexit will last well beyond it unless significant action is taken.

The nations of the European Union have spent sixty years diligently cutting through the red tape that tied up anyone wishing to work across their borders. With a stroke of the Brexit pen, the UK government has created the biggest ever single expansion in red tape in our country, all the while proclaiming that it was freeing us from Brussels bureaucrats. This isn’t about ideology: it’s about real people swamped in daily paperwork in order to be permitted to do things that no-one really wants to stop them doing. If Covid-19 is the viper which can poison our music industry with a single bite, Brexit is the boa constrictor, choking out life with each tightening of its bureaucratic coils.

Our performing arts industries – of which classical music is only one – are crucial to our economy and crucial to our prestige and soft power abroad. The UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement contains fifteen pages on fisheries – but is silent as to any agreement over the arts. This has to change.

It’s going to take decades before a UK government, of whatever complexion, gets a chance to redeem us fully from this madness. But in the meantime, the present government needs to act on hacking through the jungle of red tape that it has just created: this will require diligence, attention to detail and good will in negotiating the removal of individual barriers, one at a time. The task of freeing us from this paperwork nightmare needs to start soon.

With thanks to the London Symphony Orchestra, the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestras, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Philharmonia Orchestra for answering our questions. While most of the facts in the article are theirs, the opinions and commentary are my own.