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  • Writer's picturePaul Carey Jones

British Musicians Face Up to Brexit's Perfect Storm.

By Paul Carey Jones


“When we are born, we cry that we are come To this great stage of fools.” (King Lear, Act 4 Scene 6)

After years - some would say decades - of arguments, flag-waving, and slogans, as January 2021 arrived, the reality of the process known as Brexit finally hit home. And it’s fair to say that British musicians didn’t like it one bit. Part One - How We Got Here

At the end of the Second World War, the idea of a union of European states arose to counter the disastrous spread of extreme nationalism. While Winston Churchill went as far as proposing a United States of Europe, initial steps were more modest, eventually leading to six nations founding the European Economic Community in 1957. The United Kingdom’s attitude was skeptical at first, but continuing post-war economic challenges, as well as the decline of the British Empire, led to them joining in 1973. Members or not, the UK’s feelings towards what had by 1993 become the European Union remained at best ambivalent, and at times downright fractious. In particular, an increasingly vocal element of the Conservative Party favored leaving altogether. They proved a constant thorn in the side of every Conservative leader after Margaret Thatcher. As they prepared to fight the 2015 General Election, Prime Minister David Cameron thought he’d cracked this nut by including the promise of a national referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU in his party’s election manifesto. Cameron may well have been banking on it being a promise he would never have to keep - opinion polls at the time pointed strongly to a continuation of the coalition government with the smaller Liberal Democrats, in which case he would have had the option of sidelining the referendum. However, having won a surprise overall majority and therefore being able to form a government without the need for a junior partner, Cameron was obliged to stick to his referendum promise. With the instinct of a gambler on a roll, Cameron called an early referendum in 2016. Crucially, he declined to include any safeguarding criteria such as the need for a super-majority or a confirmatory second referendum, the UK’s largely unwritten constitution allowing him to make up the rules on the hoof. A simple 50% winning line was all that faced the Leave campaign, and when the opposing campaign for remaining with the status quo proved lackluster and uninspiring, the final poll came out at 52:48 for leaving the EU. Stung by this unexpected defeat, Cameron immediately resigned and was replaced as Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister by Theresa May. She imposed more severe interpretation, resulting in leaving not just the EU but also the looser economic arrangements of the Single Market, Customs Union, and many other smaller partnerships, all of which had contributed to the frictionless trade across EU borders which British companies and workers had come to take for granted over the previous decades. In the end, the stormy task of extracting the UK from the EU - by now universally known as “Brexit” - became too much for May to weather, caught as she was between the unbounded promises of an unregulated referendum campaign, and the much harsher practical realities of complex international negotiations. Her successor Boris Johnson, with a conjuror’s knack for obscuring unpalatable details just long enough to fool his audience into overlooking them, agreed to a deal with the EU which was signed on December 24th 2020 and came into force at 11pm UK time on New Year’s Eve, giving British businesses a whole week over Christmas to prepare for the biggest constitutional and regulatory change in living memory. Part Two - Where We Are Now Parliament passed the new EU-UK trade agreement on December 30th despite - or perhaps because of - the timescale of events meaning that most British politicians hadn’t had time to analyze the text in its entirety. “Get ready for Brexit”, British businesses had been told, which is a bit like telling holidaymakers to “get ready for weather” when packing their suitcases: it’s not much use without further details. The implications of the deal’s fine print only began to come to light in January as the new rules rolled out. The fishing industry was the first to feel the impact of these new barriers to trade, British fishermen suddenly finding it impossible to complete the newly required paperwork quickly enough to sell their catch to EU markets, many facing the prospect of substantial job losses or even bankruptcy as a result. Musicians weren’t far behind in spotting the flaws in the new arrangements. Having been assured during the negotiating process that the UK would negotiate special allowances for the movement of its musicians working in the EU, and vice versa, such allowances were conspicuous by their absence from the final deal. Furthermore, it emerged in the British press that the EU had offered short term visa exemptions for UK musicians, which the British negotiators rejected; the UK government responded that they too had later put forward a different proposal to achieve the same sort of thing, which the EU in turn rejected. It seems that no compromise was achievable in the time available, and so British performing artists are now faced with the same barriers to working in the EU as other “third country” nationals. To understand the huge outburst of anger and resentment this realization provoked among British artists, it’s necessary to take a step back and look at what has been lost. Pre-Brexit, tenor Elgan Llyr Thomas had been building an impressive rising star’s career across Europe. “Having an EU passport made these contracts as simple as can be. Almost as simple as working in the UK; the only difference was filling out a straightforward form in order that I wouldn’t pay tax in two countries.” Work in Europe was a crucial building block in the flourishing international reputation of lyric soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn, who established a base in Germany as her career expanded in 2013. “All I needed was my passport, a print-out of my bank statement, and my accommodation contract. My friends drove me over to Germany and helped me move in, and it was as simple as that.” So a generation of British musicians had grown up with the reality that working and living in any of 27 other European countries was, in effect, not much more difficult than a Californian traveling to Texas or New York. I wondered how this compared with life in the era before the serious moves towards European unity began. With six decades of work across the globe under his belt, legendary British bass Sir John Tomlinson provided an insight. “In the 1960s, I traveled a lot as a tourist in Europe. A UK passport was essential for rigorous checks at each national border, but no further document of any kind was needed. My first work in Europe was in 1973, then 74, 76, 78, and every year since. There was no need for a visa in those early years, and Schengen (the European border control-free travel area) has made travel within the EU ever easier.” But Sir John also points out that direct comparisons with the modern world are potentially misleading. “Of course, the world is a different place now, with international terrorism, digital IT and so on, and the EU regulatory framework will be far more complex than fifty years ago. The world was simpler then and it’s not possible to turn the clock back.” The crucial point to absorb about Brexit is that, even with a deal in place, it’s the only international agreement in history to make trade between two neighbors more difficult rather than easier. There are inevitable teething troubles: two British freelance artists with forthcoming work in Spain recently presented themselves at the Spanish Embassy to organize their visas, only to discover that the UK was not listed as a possible country of origin for applicants yet. But even once those initial glitches are ironed out, making international trade more difficult will remain a core part of what Brexit is about, in return for this largely intangible notion of “sovereignty” of which our current government is so fond. Brexit is designed to raise barriers rather than lower them, and a project which was in large part built on promises to reduce ‘red tape’ has suddenly, and with minimal warning, entangled British businesses in several hundred yards of it. Sir John is resigned but cautiously optimistic: “I anticipate future red tape to be a bore, but not a significant brake on work. And it will improve with time. It’s difficult and challenging, but it’s reality.” Elizabeth Llewellyn warns of the impact on the coming generations of British musicians and their prospects of work in Europe. “If there are significant visa costs or administration involved for an opera house in getting an artist over from the UK, I think they will think twice about whether they really need that artist or not, especially for smaller houses. Had these barriers been in place in 2013, I believe that I would not have the career I have today - no one knew me then, and so they were taking a risk.” And Elgan Llyr Thomas senses that this harsh new reality already affects the thinking of younger artists. “Back in November I gave a performance class to some student opera singers in their final undergraduate year. The norm here is to audition for further study either at the same school or elsewhere; I daresay even abroad in the EU. I asked them all how many were auditioning for further study, and not one hand went up. It has to be said that the coronavirus plays a huge part in that, but Brexit is the final nail in the coffin.” For instrumentalists, orchestras and bands, the situation is even more forbidding. The new rules concerning cross-border touring, with the hassle and cost of more complicated paperwork for people and equipment, plus far more restrictive transport regulations, will make many musical tours of Europe entirely unfeasible. In all the talk of the financial and logistical impact of these new barriers, it’s essential not to overlook the emotional loss. The cost and hassle of red tape is something which artists from the USA and other countries all deal with as a fact of life when it comes to working internationally, after all. But there’s more to it than that: the three British singers I interviewed all spoke of the importance of their sense of belonging to Europe, personally and professionally. A New Yorker who suddenly had to present a visa and work permit to visit Los Angeles would suffer economically, but probably even more so in feeling they’d had a core piece of their national identity wrenched away. The cultural and linguistic cross-pollination, which is an organic part of a musical career, transcends borders and boundaries. Having that closeness with our continental cousins taken away feels like being torn prematurely from the womb. If we are crying at the shock of it all, that’s surely entirely forgivable. And ultimately, it’s impossible to separate all this from the simultaneous impact of the pandemic. Those colleagues of mine who were having trouble at the Spanish Embassy came away to be told that they wouldn’t be able to arrive for the start of rehearsals anyway due to coronavirus travel restrictions. So either way, they were stuck at home in the UK, where work is mainly impossible because of theatres being in lockdown, and financial support from the government for freelance artists is patchy, and in many cases, non-existent. It’s a perfect storm. And any British artist who manages to survive it deserves every reward they get.


Paul Carey Jones is a Welsh-Irish bass-baritone, and also a COVID-pivot blogger, voice actor and author. His first book ‘Giving It Away - Classical Music in Lockdown and other fairytales’ was published in October 2020 and is on sale from Amazon websites worldwide. He returns to the stage as Wotan in Longborough Festival Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, starting in June 2021.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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