Work permits are not even half the story

by Nick Gammon | 7 Aug 2021 |

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport issued a statement on Wednesday headlined, “Visa-free short-term touring allowed in 19 member states”, and went on to proclaim somewhat breathlessly, “… we tabled ambitious proposals during negotiations with the EU… 19 Member States have confirmed UK musicians and performers do not need visas or work permits for short-term tours.”

Led by Elton John, British musicians and performers have been vocal in their dismay at the failure of the government to organise a post-Brexit deal for the Culture & Media sectors. Politicians of all stripes have urgently raised the difficulties now facing artists touring the EU. And recently the DCMS select committee held Lord Frost’s feet to fire for what seems to be a catastrophic miscalculation in the post Brexit negotiations.

So HMG could be forgiven for a little triumphalism for having broken the impasse with such rapidity. In the hours following the statement however, qualified approval for the development dissolved as the sector’s unions and trade associations unpicked the statement and realised that far from the government having won visa-waiver concessions in bi-lateral talks with the 19 member states, it simply seemed to be regurgitating the arrangements these countries already had in place for artists from so called third countries. And these rules of course, now also apply to Britain.

As we can see some countries allow artists to work permit free for a few days or even a few months in their territories. Of course these exemptions have to be applied for, and differ in each country – much like work permits, and in general, they are rather more limited in their scope than the DCMS’s headline. However, work permits alone are not the only issue facing performing artists. The costs of cabotage and carnets are now significant obstacles to touring performers. To decode the jargon, cabotage permits cross-border transportation and carnets are the documents needed to temporarily import goods without paying taxes and duty.

Whilst the the difficulties facing performing artists are clear, the difficulties facing the other arts and media have been less obvious. One reason is the current sense of stasis, as Covid imposes its own restrictions on freedom of movement. There are very few exhibitions taking place at the moment. But how hard could it really be post-Brexit for a UK visual artist to ship an exhibition to the Netherlands?

Happily, there is no duty on bringing artworks into the EU but the big “but” is there is VAT to pay. Which in the Netherlands is levied at 9% for artworks. In other words 9% of the value of the artist’s entire exhibition would have to be lodged with customs at the border before the work is allowed in. For even a modest exhibition that could come to several thousand euros, which is probably a deal breaker for most artists.

The good news is that you can apply for a temporary import permit, which works EU wide, and allows you to avoid the VAT. The bad news is that the forms on the EU trader portal are so complex that the EU offers courses in how to complete them. Dutch customs recommends you get the help of an advisor or a customs broker if applying for a permit. In any case you have to lodge security with customs, which is probably going to equal the VAT you are trying to avoid.

Using a shipper can help. I spoke to Kortmaan’s the art movers in the Netherlands, who can also act as broker and organise the temporary permit. However, the cost for this has more than doubled for shipments from the UK, post-Brexit. From about €450 to around a €1000 per cubic metre for a spot in a shared lorry each way. That increase in price is not least because of the extra paperwork now faced by the company. You might be able to squeeze an exhibition into a cubic metre but the paintings would have to be small. Even then €2000 is a lot of money for an artist who might not sell that much work during the show.

Another way to do it, is to get an ATA Carnet which lets you bring exhibition materials or musical instruments into most countries without paying duty or VAT. Which brings us full circle to the musicians.

You get ATA Carnet’s from the KvK – the Chamber of Commerce – to import into the Netherlands. The first hurdle is that you must be a company, not a person. But apart from that, it  would cost about €350 for the paperwork – which is already much a better deal than paying a shipper. Of course you have to add the cost of a van and a ferry to that.

But remember setting up a company requires keeping company records, filing company accounts and tax returns – all of which incur significant costs in themselves. Consequently few artists in the UK operate as companies. I suspect unless artists have other good reasons to form companies, they will probably find the shipper is the cheapest option. So, where last year the cost of bringing a show from say London to Amsterdam would have been around two or three hundred euros in fuel and ferries, that could now have multiplied ten times.

And so in this, visual artists are currently in lockstep with their sister performing artists, each facing very similar hurdles.

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