Post-Brexit visa rules a ‘disaster’ for the arts, says Edinburgh festival director Brexit

The outgoing director of the Edinburgh International Festival has called for the UK’s visa and export regulations to be greatly simplified to allow musicians and artists to travel overseas far more smoothly.

Fergus Linehan, who will direct his final international festival next month, said Britain’s post-Brexit visa rules have been a “disaster” for the arts and for artists, stifling collaboration and making it difficult for British artists to tour abroad.

In an interview with the Guardian, he called on the UK government to introduce visa-free travel for artists and to solve the huge logistical problems faced by companies importing touring equipment into the UK.

He said it’s “much harder” for Brits to get visas to work abroad than it is for foreign artists to visit the UK and the cost of freight is “just crazy”. Europeans who once applied for British arts jobs are also more hesitant about visas and their right to stay, especially if they have families, he said.

“Of course, when musicians perform [in another country], they will not set themselves up at home. That’s not what it is about. So visa-free movement for people,” Linehan said. “We are part of an ecosystem. The idea of ​​preventing collaboration is a disaster in our industry.

“If there was only one thing, a silver bullet, I’d say it would be that.”

Linehan, a Dublin-born theater director who has previously lived and worked in Australia, is handing over the reins to violinist and Grammy-winning composer Nicola Benedetti in October after directing the international festival for eight years.

Benedetti, the festival’s second youngest director, will also have the honor of being the first woman, first Scottish and first working musician to direct the event since its inception in 1947, when Europe emerged from the trauma of World War II.

Linehan said the political crisis surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol, with Boris Johnson’s government threatening to break international law by unilaterally rewriting a trade deal with the EU, has significantly increased tensions with the UK’s neighbours.

“The good will is not there. I think a lot of those things aren’t that complex,” he said. “If you take the heat out of the situation, and it wasn’t all an ideological mound where everyone was willing to die, a lot of this could be clarified. Just blunt pragmatism, [not] Earn points on all levels.”

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Linehan said he was amazed that the UK government failed to anticipate and plan for the impact of hard Brexit on the labor market, by slowing things down so that UK residents could be trained in many of the jobs routinely done by migrants be taken over.

He said the global crises involving migration had become a resonant theme for artists during the programming of this year’s festival. “It just keeps coming out,” he says. One of the central themes of this festival is refuge and cultural exchange, also because its founder, Rudolf Bing, was a refugee.

A major production will be Jungle Book Reimagined, a choreographer Akram Khan’s reimagining of Rudyard Kipling’s classic, in which Mowgli is a climate refugee who arrives in an abandoned town overrun by wild animals.

Linehan said he expected the August festivals to induce a “cathartic charge” for audiences and artists, partly because of Brexit and the ongoing problems created by Covid and the Ukraine crisis. “Those moments of collective joy feel like they have some sort of resonance and meaning that’s very, very real,” he said.

The rising costs and labor shortages are internal and logistical challenges that need to be addressed, he said, adding that people need to put the current economic crisis in context: in 1947 Edinburgh had few hotels and the public had very little money.

The 2008 bank crash destroyed lives and economies, and the 2016 Brexit vote was followed by the populist uprisings of Donald Trump in the US, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, he said.

“It is remarkable how resilient the festivals are in these special moments. In moments of great uncertainty we sometimes cling to the great celebrations [and] I think Edinburgh in August is strengthened at a time of great uncertainty. I don’t think it feels reckless or less relevant because we’re going through all these things.”

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