Fergus Linehan said he could not see how a “terrible mess” could be avoided in 2019 as he revealed he is having to prepare for a scaled-back event.
Speaking ahead of the launch of this year’s Festival on Friday, Mr Linehan revealed that he has drawn up contingency plans to pull the plug on some projects due to huge uncertainty over the economic impact of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
He said the “horrors” of Brexit had become more and more apparent, with the EIF already struggling to find staff to work at its headquarters on the Royal Mile and facing the prospect of mounting red tape and soaring costs to bring in artists and performers.
The Irishman, who recently signed a new contract tying him to the event until 2022 – the festival’s 75th anniversary – admitted he was having to make plans on the basis of a “catastrophic” Brexit unfolding within the next few months.
Mr Linehan said he had some “really big” international projects lined up for the 2019 event, but was also having to ensure the festival was not left at risk of financial failure in the event of a massive downturn in income.
He said: “We will have to be really careful about next year, just like everyone else. The question is more about scale.
“If we’re talking about a catastrophic scenario or some absolute dog’s dinner next spring, we can’t leave ourselves financially exposed too much. We will want to maintain the absolute quality of the event, but we will have to have a fall-back position. Our priority will be to make sure the festival is safe and secure.
“It is already causing a certain amount of caution. What you do is layer up the programme in one way and layer up the rest of the programme in a way that you could back out of it if needed.”
When he unveiled the 2018 programme in March, Mr Linehan warned the prospect of Brexit had created a “wave of uncertainty” for the event that was hampering advance planning. Earlier this week Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy admitted she was concerned international artists would go to festivals elsewhere due to the cost and complexity of coming to Edinburgh in the future.
Mr Linehan said he thought the Fringe would be more seriously affected than his own event because small companies who normally attended the event would not have the resources to deal with the extra demands of the post-Brexit landscape.
But he added: “It might be really, really hard economically next year if people don’t come to their senses in some shape or form. The real kicker at the moment is that no-one wants to invest. It’s going to make people really tentative.
“We are at such a strange place as the horrors become more apparent. People just seem to be becoming more calcified in their positions.
“I’m conscious that sitting down in a room with people all of whom think Brexit is a catastrophe doesn’t really get us anywhere. But I just think that the idea of more intolerance and low-level racism being given fuel is just horrific.
“I just can’t see how it’s not going to be a disaster. It’s not an ideological position, but I just can’t see how it’s not going to be a terrible mess. It will make it much less attractive to EU nationals to live here. We work in a European environment. It’s not that we won’t be able to work in that environment again. There will be really good people who can go anywhere in future if it just becomes too hard to come here.
“This city is about finance, tourism, culture and the universities. These are all really international industries, so you can see how it will be particularly problematic.
“If there is suddenly a whole extra lawyer of administration, cost and complexity, it will be much more difficult for smaller operators. Anyone who is running a hospitality business is already aware that there is an absolute squeeze on finding people. It has affected us here at The Hub. It is really apparent.”
Mr Linehan admitted it was unlikely the festival would return to Leith Theatre next year despite King Creosote, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Lau and Mogwai being lined up for the historic venue’s return to the EIF programme for the first time in 30 years. He insisted this was down to the need to carry out a full refurbishment of the building, including new power supplies and toilet facilities.