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.

All photographs taken by me on recent travels in Greece. No review samples used. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Graeme said…
You highlight the fact that the Brexit debate has little basis in fact. I voted to leave because I am uneasy about the undemocratic aspects of the EU and the way that it is so rapidly becoming a kind of Greater Germany. It was Germany who insisted on the austerity packages for the Southern States. It is Germany who runs surpluses while the youth of Southern Europe are jobless. I would imagine that most of the music conglomerates are big in Germany. And lots of people are eager to tell us that the EU has kept peace in Europe since 1945. It's easy to forget Hungary 1956,Czech 1968,Kosovo, Romania, Greece in the late 60s, Poland in the 80s. But they were not in the EU. The bullet and shell holes still remain, though
pnmoslo said…
Bob: as I've understood it the main issue is the impact of Brexit on European musicians -- ie. participants in the flexible intra-European market for (largely freelance?) musicians that has developed during the last four decades, and on which many ensembles rely and even more benefit from (as you say).

In this respect I would have thought Schengen as such was irrelevant -- Schengen is (in this context) just a practical arrangement built on top of the principle of free movement of labour in the EU single market. The UK not being in Schengen but in the single market is an administrative issue, but not a big problem. The UK not being in either Schengen or the single market, on the other hand, would potentially kill off British participation in this field.

A separate issue is that of non-EU-citizen musicians with visas for the Schengen area who face problems (or don't bother) with UK entry. Or vice versa. A big issue for the individuals and ensembles involved, but not game-changing.

Of course the impact on the music industry is just the tip of the iceberg -- as a member of the generation of British citizens who reached adulthood as the UK entered the EEC and the process of European integration really started, and as an individual who has seen, appreciated and benefited from the process throughout, both personally and professionally, Brexit is just a unfathomable tragedy.

Paul in Oslo

Pliable said…
Paul, thanks for that viewpoint. None of us, including the politicians, know the answers. But facts rather than speculation help. It still surprises me that more attention has not been focused on Norway in Brexit discussions.

You highlight that Brexit poses a threat to the flexible intra-European market for (largely freelance?) musician. Norway's status as a Schengen signatory makes inter-European travel easier. But there are many other implications of Norway not being an EU member. Are there any case studies that can be shared of how the Oslo Philharmonic or other Norwegian ensembles have been affected by Norway not being part of the EU?

At the time of the referendum I too considered Brexit a disaster. But progressively my views have changed, and that change has been influenced by the crackpot behaviour of many anti-Brexiteers - incidentally I do not number you among those.

Yanis Varoufakis' memoir may be coloured by his political convictions. But its exposé of the self-interested machinations of the EU superpowers still makes salutary reading.

Thanks again for your contribution.
Pliable said…
Paul, I have thought further about your observation of the "unfathomable tragedy" of Brexit.

As someone who also values the humanitarian ideals of European unity it is a view I have considerable sympathy for.

But the little-understood self-interested and cynical subversion of those ideals by the EU superpowers and Germany in particular is in my view an even greater tragedy.

So the balance of the tragedies prompts me to now take a more open-minded position on Brexit.
pnmoslo said…
Perhaps someone from one of the orchestras picks up on this and can give an insider viewpoint. My own guess (as an interested outsider who also runs a small business here) is that there is minimal effect because Norway, in most of the fields that would affect an orchestra, to all intents and purposes is a member of the EU (EEA member, inside the single market and Schengen). Being outside the customs union is possibly a hassle when it comes to moving instruments around, but otherwise I can't think that there are major areas where being formally in or out makes much difference.

The same is true in most fields (except for the specific exclusions such as agriculture and fisheries) -- the Norwegian approach is a very pragmatic have cake and eat it while accepting that one has no control over the ingredients one. A workable solution for a small country with 50/50 divided population, but probably not a good idea for a large country with 50/50 divided population.
Pliable said…
Thanks for that Paul. Your contribution is possibly the most informed and informative discussion of Brexit that I have seen on any classical forum. It makes a refreshing change from all those re-tweets of the Guardian's audience-whoring anti-Brexit scaremongering.

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