How is Brexit changing things for our artists?

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A photo showing two DJs at work


This article examines some of the potential implications for artists in Northern Ireland (NI) following the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) exit from the European Union (EU). Once COVID-19 restrictions ease and movement of people resumes; touring, movement of cultural goods and access to funding are amongst the most significant changes for artists, though full details are still emerging.

Movement of people and goods

In January 2021, the Musician’s Union published a flow chart to help their members navigate the changes musicians now need to consider when planning to work in the EU. These include: working rights, movement of equipment and exporting merchandise.

The Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) has been provisionally applied by both the EU and the UK since 1 January 2021. According to witnesses providing evidence at a recent House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee meeting, the full effects of the changes will not be felt until COVID-19 restrictions are eased and movement of people resumes. Once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, many UK artists may find that the changes resulting from the TCA, will mean more time is needed to complete detailed planning before touring in the EU.

In a recent House of Lords EU services subcommittee meeting, Horace Trubridge, the General Secretary of the Musicians’ Union gave evidence to Peers about what the new rules mean for touring musicians.

Anything that adds cost and red tape, like work permits, carnets and other documentation, will make it even harder for our gigging members to make a living – and potentially make it less likely promoters will book them too. (Source: Musicians’ Union)

Many of the potential impacts for musicians may also be true for theatre professionals as well. The National Theatre in London announced on 17 February 2021, that it was cancelling plans to tour in the EU.

As NI is now under a dual customs regime, for artists based here, the practical outcomes of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the UK Internal Market Act require further consideration. The Ulster Orchestra commented in the Belfast Telegraph that their members may need a CITES certificate to transport their woodwind instruments between Great Britain (GB) and NI. According to the NI Chamber of Commerce, clarity on arrangements is still emerging. Their advice was to keep checking the UK Government website for more details.

Moving people

Working visa and permit arrangements are the responsibility of individual Member States and require those Member States to make bi-lateral agreements with the UK. Speaking at a DCMS Committee meeting, Minister for Culture Caroline Dinenage, reported that as of 16 February 2021, no bi-lateral discussions had begun. To support the development of proposals for the UK’s future relationship with the EU, DCMS created a working group in January 2021. The Arts Council of NI is a member and represents the views of NI-based artists.

Four month window

A recent briefing by the House of Commons Library reported that in 2019 arts and culture contributed £10.47 billion to the UK economy. In the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), the word ‘fish’ is mentioned 368 times, whereas the words ‘music’, ‘art’ and ‘culture’ are not included. Deborah Annetts, the Chief Executive of Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), questioned the lack of arrangements in the TCA for the arts at a DCMS Committee meeting in February 2021. Deborah Annetts highlighted that:

…the UK music industry grew to £5.8 billion this year, providing more than four times the value to the economy than fishing (£1.4 billion). (Source: ISM)

Also, during this same DCMS Committee meeting, Deborah Annetts suggested that before the summer festival season begins and COVID-19 restrictions are eased, there is a ‘four month window’ to work on bi-lateral arrangements with individual EU Member States. ISM suggested that the UK’s proposals to use Mode 4 does not work for touring musicians. It’s generally used for short term business trips, and according to the World Trade Organisation ‘does not concern persons seeking access to the employment market in the host member’, meaning that it would not cover UK bands and their crews performing paid gigs in the EU.

Common Travel Area

In November 2020, NI Screen hosted an online panel session with speakers from the British Film Institute, the Institute of Chartered Ship Brokers and a media immigration firm. The implications of Brexit for artists working cross border were discussed. Members of the panel described the Common Travel Area (CTA) as a long-standing arrangement between the UK and Ireland. It pre-dates both British and Irish membership of the EU. Under the CTA, British and Irish citizens can move freely, reside in either jurisdiction and enjoy associated rights and privileges, including the right to work.

Moving Equipment

ATA Carnet

The ATA Carnet is an international customs document which allows the temporary importation of professional equipment going to countries which are part of the ATA Carnet system. Without one, those seeking to move equipment would need to complete each country’s customs procedures for the temporary admission of goods. For example, by lodging a temporary import bond. The requirements for ATA Carnets between NI, GB and RoI are still emerging.

At a House of Lords debate on 22 February 2021, Lord Aberdare asked:

…whether Admission Temporaire Carnets will be required for portable musical instruments carried by musicians for professional purposes when travelling (1) between the UK and the EU, and (2) between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Lord Agnew of Oulton responded:

ATA carnets are an option for moving goods temporarily between the UK and the EU; Temporary Admission is another. Whether to use an ATA carnet is generally a commercial decision based on cost effectiveness and the individual’s or business’s circumstances. A carnet is generally not necessary for musicians travelling between GB and NI or between GB and the EU with accompanied instruments (carried or taken with the individual in personal baggage or a vehicle). In this case a person can make a ‘declaration by conduct’ which is simply the act of moving through a ‘Green Channel’ at a port or airport.

However, there is still some ambiguity whether musicians planning to temporarily move equipment between GB and NI should apply for an ATA Carnet. Considerations include, what is being moved (personal baggage or freight) and how it is being moved (direct or indirect). The UK Government’s free to use Trader Support Service provides information on moving goods between NI and GB. But at present, the guidance on temporary admission appears to only support import declarations rather than special customs procedures around temporary movements.

The cost of an ATA Carnet is dependent on a number of factors. For members of the Musicians’ Union, the London Chamber of Commerce have offered a discounted rate. For £10,000 worth of instruments travelling to and from the EU for two months (for any number of visits) it costs £180 + VAT (total £216) for an issuing fee and £56 + VAT (total £67.20) for a security fee. ATA Carnets last for a year and offer worldwide cover. And the HMRC has stated that, ‘…you must show the Carnet to customs each time you enter or exit Northern Ireland.’


There were two specific references in the TCA to Ireland and Northern Ireland. One describes cross border bus services. The second reference relates to cabotage.

According to the UK Government:

Cabotage is the loading and unloading of goods for hire or reward in one country by a vehicle registered in a different country.

The new rules limit the number of stops a lorry registered in the UK can make in the EU. The TCA states that NI-based hauliers can make two pick-ups in Ireland in any seven day period (whereas this is limited to one pick-up for the rest of the EU). This change has consequences for touring artists performing in five or six different locations during a week-long tour, a common practice for bands as well as theatre and comedy acts.

Movement of cultural goods

Image of an exhibition at an art gallery

Museums, galleries and archives also need to be prepared to change how cultural goods are moved in and out of NI. According to Arts Council England, for those planning to move goods of cultural value in and out of NI, the following needs to be considered:

    • Exports from NI to EU Member States require a UK export licence;
    • Exports from NI directly to non-EU countries require an EU export licence;
    • Exports from NI to GB do not require an export licence issued by the UK. This includes objects from NI which are being exported to a non-UK destination through a port or airport in GB, which will require only a UK export licence for their final export from the UK;
    • Exports from EU Member States which are in transit through NI, which have not been definitively despatched from the EU or which have not entered into free circulation in NI, may require an EU export licence issued by the relevant EU Member State to permit them to be exported to GB.

Access to EU funding 

Speaking to the BBC, Queen’s University academic Dr Ali Fitzgibbon stated:

You can put a show on for one week locally but that week is being financed by multiple grant sources and a 16-week tour in the UK or internationally.

For artists based in NI, some of the grant sources that financed their work previously came from the EU. One source of EU funding for culture was Creative Europe.

Creative Europe is a European Union programme supporting the cultural, creative and audio-visual sectors. From 2014-2020, €1.46 billion was available to support European projects. This funding programme supported artists to travel, reach new audiences and encourage skill sharing and development. The programme is divided into sub programmes. These include Culture, which provides funding for the cultural and creative sectors and MEDIA which invests in film, television, new media and video games.

The impact of Creative Europe’s Culture programme for NI included:

      • €720,184 was awarded to NI companies and organisations through Culture;
      • This is 2.4% of the €30 million Culture funding awarded UK wide;
      • 3% of Cooperation Projects the UK have been involved in included an NI partner;
      • 1% of all Cooperation Projects in Europe included an NI partner; and
      • Projects in NI partnered with organisations operating out of 20 out of the 41 participating countries in the Creative Europe programme.

UK artists can still apply for Creative Europe collaborative initiatives such as i-Portunus as this funding call opened before Brexit. Also, funding for UK projects that were successful before the UK exited Europe, will be honoured.

A new Creative Europe programme of funding is to launch in April 2021. Although the UK Government has decided to no longer participate in Creative Europe, there may be a possibility for UK based artists to apply under ‘third country’ status. The full details of this process are still to be released. The Creative Europe Desk in Belfast is due to close at the end of March 2021. Those interested in finding out more should contact the Creative Europe desks in Ireland.

Watch this space

As the future relationship between the UK and the EU develops, a number of information portals have been created to help artists keep updated on changes relevant to their sector. These include:

In five years’ time, things may change all over again, as the Trade and Cooperation Agreement is reviewed. Also, a vote of consent for the NI protocol is due to take place in December 2024. However, other articles of the NI protocol including guarantees to rights and equality, a commitment to the Common Travel Area and North–South co-operation will remain in force regardless of any consent vote.