Postcards from the edge of Europe
One of the highlights of the 2017 BBC Proms was the the Oslo Philharmonic under its chief conductor Vasily Petrenko performing Shostakovich's Twelfth Symphony. In the Guardian Andrew Clements described the Norwegian orchestra as a "thrilling ensemble"and awarded the performance four stars. The Oslo Philharmonic is a venerable and respected orchestra which tours in EU countries and as far afield as Hong Kong and Taiwan, and in the 2019-2020 season it undertakes a centenary world tour to major European capitals, Asia and South America. Another more questionable highlight of the 2017 BBC Proms season was the high profile expressions of pro-European unity and anti-Brexit sentiments from the platform. But conveniently overlooked by everyone was the Oslo Philharmonic's domicile in a European country that is not a member of the EU; a domicile shared with the Bergen Philharmonic which has recently been acclaimed for its recordings of Vaughan Williams' Ninth Symphony and Job under sometime Last Night of the Proms impresario Andrew Davis.
Two Norwegian swallows do not make a spring. But the status of these two orchestras at least challenges the received wisdom currently abroad within the classical music industry that Brexit means the end of classical music as we know it in Britain. One reason the Oslo Philharmonic has an international profile is that Norway is a signatory of the Schengen Agreement. This agreement abolishes internal borders between Schengen signatory nations allowing free and unrestricted movement of the populace. However, although Britain is currently an EU member it is not a signatory to the Schengen Agreement*. Free and unrestricted movement of people is at the heart of the classical music establishment's anti-Brexit rhetoric. Yet Britain's anomalous non-Schengen status has not received any attention at all from Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim and all the other vocal anti-Brexiteers.
It would be foolish to suggest that the success of the Oslo Philharmonic means Britain has nothing to fear from Brexit. But it is equally foolish to speculate that Britain's exit from the EU represents a Doomsday scenario for classical music. And it is even more foolish to endlessly recycle on social media unfounded and often misinformed speculation about Brexit. In the EU referendum I voted 'remain' and I still cherish the humanitarian ideals that are at the core of European unity. But my recent travels on the margins of Europe have propelled me further and further towards the position of lapsed remainer. When you speak with people whose preoccupation is not the building of a £300 million state-of-the-art concert hall but day-to-day survival in an economy crippled by centrally-imposed EU taxation and associated systemic corruption you start to understand that maintaining the free movement of musicians between Berlin and London post-Brexit is not the most serious EU-related problem.
Classical music's many rabid anti-Brexiteers are strongly recommended to take a break from re-tweeting the latest scaremongering memes and instead read Adults In The Room: My Battle With Europe’s Deep Establishment by Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister who led the struggle in 2015 against the austerity imposed on his country by the EU as a condition of its debt 'bailout'. A Financial Times review describes how "the vested interests [Yanis Varoufakis] talks of confronting are not to be found just among the 'oligarchy' but also in the public sector and the professions, wedded to protecting insider interests against wider society".
Arguments advanced by the leavers and remainers are equally simplistic and misinformed. The EU originated as a 'common market' for the goods and services produced by its founder members. Overly ambitious expansion of this lucrative common market into the margins of Europe has resulted in new EU member states that have very little in common with the affluent founders. A failure to recognise and respect this lack of commonality coupled with porous European borders and the humanitarian tragedy triggered by ill-judged and self-interested intervention in the Middle East by coalitions of founder members and the US have precipitated the current melt down. Community unity is a laudable ideal. But attitudes in both the pro and anti-Brexit camps and in Brussels are disturbingly intolerant and inflexible. My recent travels lead me to conclude that unless these attitudes change and workable common ground is rediscovered the outlook for both Britain and the EU is very bleak.
* I suggest that many if not most classical anti-Bexiteers know little or nothing about the Schengen Agreement which allows free movement. Three other non-EU countries are party to the Schengen Agreement including Switzerland. Four EU members in addition to Britain are not Schengen signatories. Norway together with two other non-EU states are also members of the European Economic Area (EEA) which allows access to the EU’s single market. More details via this link.
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