Trucking hell – how the Brexit deal put the brakes on European touring

Edwin Shirley Trucking Paul McCartney European Tour 2004 production rehearsals Millennium Dome
Photo Credit: the author, RPJ 2004

The export of live music, which earns the UK billions and is the only source of income for countless musicians, support crew and suppliers, has been stopped in its tracks – and not only by Covid-19. Visas take months. UK trucks are not permitted to drive between gigs. Customs documentation is needed in volumes not seen for decades. Suppliers’ warehouses are full to bursting with billions of pounds’ worth of unused equipment.

Brexit was sold as an opportunity to cut red tape, take back control and make exporting easier. In this case it has signally failed.

An Early Day Motion (EDM) was tabled on 27 January seeking a ‘supplementary agreement’ to ease the way for musicians and their entourages touring in Europe. It is sponsored by Conservative MP for Somerton and Frome, David Warburton. He is a musician and has the Glastonbury Festival on his doorstep, and is no stranger to the reality of the live music industry. He is also a strong defender of Brexit.

During the trade negotiations he trotted out the party line, trumpeting the new opportunities waiting in the sunny uplands of a Britain free from the tyranny of the EU. He would have been better off thinking about the practical implications for fellow musicians who rely on international touring to make a living.

Many musicians and their touring crews have relied on Europe’s huge appetite for British performers to make a living, and promote one of the UK’s highest-earning exports. Along with everyone else involved in negotiating arrangements, Warburton ignored the warnings from the industry. He and his government all ploughed on in their arrogant, ideological belief that they knew best. They didn’t. The ‘oven-ready’ deal which has emerged has scuppered the UK’s European touring industry ‒ and the one element that does work takes me back to pre-Schengen Europe nearly 50 years ago…

It’s 1974 and I’m standing in the freezing rain in the wee small hours in the no-man’s land between Germany and Belgium. I am waiting for an officer of the German state. It is difficult to see much in the downpour, illuminated as it is by the blindingly bright floodlights pointing down the road towards Belgium. Out of this shimmering haze walks a tall man in a full-length leather coat, shiny with rain. He is as well-dressed for the weather as I am not, and has pulled the peak of his cap down so I cannot see his eyes. The cold and wet make me feel vulnerable. I have been away for a long time and this man will decide if I get to go home. With his peaked cap and the shiny coat I feel as though I am in a war film.

I have just finished a European tour with the band I work for. We have all the band’s equipment in our truck, and it is valuable. If we were to sell it while in continental Europe, we would have to pay the tax authorities the same amount of duty that would be charged if we were importing the items from the UK. How would they know we are only touring? The answer is a tedious process which involves us making a list of everything in the truck, and paying the duty which would be charged by the country with the highest import tariff before we leave the UK. Of course, we do not have the money to pay the duty, but we can buy moderately priced insurance cover for the amount. So we list everything we are taking, along with its value, on a temporary import form from the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI).

For this tour, the list runs to seven pages with about 40 items per page. At the bottom of the page is a place to record the entry and exit from each country. We need a copy for the LCCI, one for ourselves and two copies for each country we are visiting. On this tour we are visiting ten countries. So, along with the covers and instructions, transit copies for countries we are just crossing and a couple of spares, that’s a tome of around 150 pages. This is an ATA (Temporary Admission) Carnet. Provided we bring everything back to the UK and all the forms are stamped correctly, we are okay. If not, we have to claim on the insurance, which makes it difficult to get carnet insurance for the next tour.

Carnet. Image by the ATA Secretariat This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The carnet system is a rat’s nest of bureaucracy and chance. Each country, indeed each border, manages the process slightly differently, often at the whim of the customs official on duty. Some borders are not staffed 24 hours a day, or at all, so there is no-one to stamp you in or out. If something gets stolen you have to account for it with a police report and crime number. A touring schedule seldom allows for the time taken to wait at borders, and a stolen amplifier is seldom high on the police priority list ‒ unless you are touring with a famous act and they think they can schmooze with a rock star.

Back at the 1974 Belgian customs, the officer on duty will not let me and my mate into Belgium until we have paid a fee for the regularisation of the carnet. I do not know what the problem is, but it’s only 20 francs and we have a ferry to catch, and I don’t care. But we only have German Marks and he will only accept Belgian francs. He says one of the German customs officers might exchange some Marks for us. So I have headed back towards the German side.

The German customs officer was very helpful and exchanged the cash. He made some rude comments about the Belgians being too stupid to earn easy money from a Brit who just wanted to get home, as he calculated an eye-wateringly high exchange rate. Every time we crossed a border the currency changed. Exchange rates and the commissions were a significant and unpredictable item on a tour budget. It was just annoying for a big tour, but could make or break a small band. But at this point in the game I just didn’t care.

At some point in the early 1990s the need for a carnet was removed. Its demise and the introduction of the euro was met with universal appreciation by truckers.

Now the carnet and its numerous elephant traps are back. Musicians and their touring crews will also require work visas, which I do not recall ever having needed in Europe. And in a real doozy of a move, the cabotage arrangement – the deal allowing trucking across Europe ‒ assumed that all trucks went to the continent, dropped off a load of toilet paper or engine parts, picked up a return load and came back to the UK. So now the trucks which carry all the touring paraphernalia ‒ stages, sets, sound, lights, video instruments, wardrobe, catering, merchandise and God knows what else ‒ are only allowed to unload and re-load once before having to return to the UK.

Mischief la Bas checkpoint Photo by the author

The UK has a number of specialist entertainment trucking companies with between 100 and 200 trucks and experienced tour drivers. While the companies can set up a European operation allowing their trucks to be used, British drivers’ licences are no longer recognised and they will have to re-qualify at great expense. In the meantime they will lose work to qualified European drivers, even though many of those lack experience in the singular art of tour-trucking.

The ‘supplementary agreement’ sought by Warburton will have to achieve quick and easy visas, and multi-stop cabotage. These may be achievable, as European performers want to play in the UK, so there is some element of reciprocity. But getting this farcical situation resolved will use up much of the credit we have in the ‘compromise account’. The chances of being able to persuade the EU to do away with tight control of temporary import arrangements are slim at best. And it is likely that we will have the ball and chain of the laborious and costly carnet with us for the foreseeable future.

So much for cutting red tape and easier international trade! It’s not just me who went back 50 years. Thanks to Boris Johnson, we are now a third country and signed up to a deal which takes us back to the 1970s. And it wasn’t just Brexit that got done – it was all of us.