David Frost, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, has risked the wrath of Elton John and the wider music sector when he appeared to make light of the singer’s lobbying on the vexed question of visas.
The singer, he told MPs, had hits long before the UK was a member state of the European Union.
Lord Frost was appearing before a select committee being questioned about the lack of arrangements between the UK and the EU that would allow musicians and performing artists to work freely across Europe.
There has been a protracted blame game between the UK and the EU over the issue. As politicians have argued, despairing musicians have pointed out that their livelihoods remain at risk.
John has been vocal on the subject branding the government “philistines.” He told the Observer: “I’m livid about what the government did when Brexit happened. They made no provision for the entertainment business, and not just for musicians, actors and film directors, but for the crews, the dancers, the people who earn a living by going to Europe.
“It’s a nightmare. To young people just starting a career, it’s crucifying.”
Frost has personally met John to discuss the issue. “I had a good conversation with Elton John,” Lord Frost told the digital, culture, media and sport committee on Tuesday.
“Obviously it was helpful to hear directly. I can’t help noticing that his first hits were before the UK even became a member of the European Union so I think there is probably more at play here than pure rules within the then European Community.
“Talent is important and that’s why we support our talented creative industries.”
The SNP culture spokesman John Nicolson accused Frost of taking an “entirely gratuitous” swipe at John. He said the EU had entered into a number of visa waiver agreements with governments which meant “that a musician from Tonga has greater access to work in Europe than UK musicians.”
“The reality is that you sacrificed a £6bn sector and its workers for Brexit … anti-free trade movement zealotry.”
Frost argued that musicians were able to work visa-free – albeit with time limits – in 17 EU countries and his colleagues at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport were working to relax visa requirements for seven other countries.
He called on musicians and their representative bodies to support the government in persuading individual countries to relax visa requirements.
Senior EU sources said “zero” approach had been made by the UK to Brussels on removing the work visa and other barriers for musicians, actors and other creatives post Brexit.
Part of the solution could be pan-European but some could be down to bilateral agreements between individual countries.
More than 1,000 artists are backing a music industry campaign, #LetTheMusicMove, pushing for a reduction in the costs and red tape of touring.
Reacting to Frost’s appearance before MPs the campaign said the session would do little to soothe growing concerns.
“While we continue to suffer the catastrophic impacts of Covid, many are now in open despair at the government’s disturbing lack of urgency to address a range of Brexit-related bureaucracy and costs that will make EU touring almost prohibitively expensive and burdensome.”
It said the UK’s £1bn fishing industry had received £23m to adjust to new red tape. “As it stands, our £6bn world-beating music industry is being hung out to dry. It feels like a complete abdication of responsibility.”