Czech ambassador: The best things about living in London? Oysters and football!

Libor Sečka, photo: Daniela Lazarová

Libor Sečka is a seasoned Czech diplomat who has served as ambassador in countries such as Italy, Spain, Malta and China. At the start of 2016 he took office as Czech ambassador to the UK. On a brief visit to Prague, I spoke to him about his current mission, the life of a diplomat and how he won a bottle of wine in an ambassadorial bet on the outcome of the Brexit referendum.

Libor Sečka,  photo: Daniela Lazarová
“It was a small provocation I made in the family of the EU ambassadors to make things more interesting and to make the atmosphere more relaxed. I took part in the betting and I won a bottle of red wine which was nice, but not something that filled me with happiness. I mean here we are in a situation where British voters decided they want to leave the EU and now we are facing a new situation which we have to solve.”

2016 was a record year for Czech-British trade with the trade turnover reaching close to 300 billion Czech crowns. Britain is one of the top 10 investors in the Czech Republic and Czech companies are investing in Britain …do you fear a set-back given the uncertainty surrounding Brexit?

“You are right, uncertainty is not good for business. What we need is a more stable, more predictable environment for both sides. The UK market is the fifth biggest for Czech exporters and it would not be good if we are not able to move ahead and guarantee Czech and British companies frictionless business contacts as in the past. Now we are in the third round of negotiations and we are still quite far from the end. What I think is positive and gives me some hope is that now the British government has accepted the idea of transitional periods. So at least the pressure on both sides has relaxed a little, giving us more time to try to resolve the situation. For the moment there are no practical implications for companies doing business, everything is as usual, but the question is what will happen after March 2019.”

There are around 100,000 Czechs living and working in Great Britain – how do they feel about it? Is there widespread concern as the regards their future position?

“We are planning a concert of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in Hyde Park – a concert that the Czech Republic will dedicate to the British public.”

“In the wake of the referendum we got a lot of signals that the atmosphere in different parts of the UK was getting worse. Some Czech citizens were attacked after speaking Czech on the street or a restaurant and we tried to help them also in communication with the local authorities. And I have to say that the British authorities were very forthcoming, very constructive and they did their best to solve the situation. We also used our political debates with government ministers to relay the message that the situation is getting worse and that something should be done on the political level and I think this message was taken very seriously.”

“Today we do not feel so much that Czech citizens are having problems, but we have noticed at the embassy that the number of applications from British citizens with Czech roots has been growing – some of them are asking for a renewal of Czech citizenship.”

I understand that a new consulate is to open in Manchester to help deal with these requests…

Photo: Public Domain
“Yes, this is something Czech diplomacy would like to do for our expats. We are opening a Czech General Consulate in Manchester. There are a lot of Czechs living in and around Manchester and we will provide them with better service once the consulate is open. In London we are overloaded with work and it is a very difficult time for our consulate section, but with the Manchester consulate everything will be better. And, the Manchester consulate will also help our business because we think there are a lot of business opportunities in the further development of this area.”

Away from Brexit now – what do British citizens know about the Czech Republic? What first comes to mind in connection with this country?

“It very much depends on whom you are speaking with, because some people know a lot about the Czech Republic, its culture, history, economy, even the political system. But on average, people know something about Czech music, they know a lot about Czech beer, many go to Prague for stag parties and some of them know something about Czech sports as well because although we are a small country we are quite strong in different sports. So I would say that on average, the knowledge is not so big. We are not far geographically, but mentally, culturally we are quite far.”

Do they throw Czechs into one bag with East Europeans, cheap labour, those kinds of labels?

“If you open your heart and people recognize it, they will open their heart to you too. In Britain it just takes a bit longer.”

“That happens quite often, it is very difficult for the average British person to recognize who is from Poland, who is from Romania, who is from Bulgaria, they see us as East European nations, but I see this as our task at the embassy to say to the Brits: look we are here, we are Czechs and the Czech Republic is not only Prague, we have excellent science and technology, we can demonstrate our moral authority –now we will celebrate 50 years from the Prague Spring – which is a good opportunity to show where we are and who we are, that we can be a reliable partner. We have a lot of traditions, but not only traditions.”

2018 is an important anniversary year for the Czech Republic –I know you are planning to mark it with a great many PR events in which you want to show the Czech Republic in a different light, among other things a concert of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in Hyde Park – can you tell us more?

“2018 is an extraordinary opportunity for us to show the new face of the Czech Republic. What we want to do is not just to concentrate on commemorating but to use it as a platform, to say OK, we are celebrating the centenary of the founding of Czechoslovakia but we can offer this and this kind of cooperation today and this and that in the future. The Czech Republic is really advanced in the sphere of nanotechnologies, in the health care system, there are areas in which we have things that the British don’t have or even know about, our cardio-care is unique in the world and the same goes for some industry technologies, we produce cars like the Brits so we can be a strong partner in this field.”

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra,  photo: archive of Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
“And culture, I didn’t mention culture because that is so obvious. So we are now identifying the areas where we can cooperate more, we have established a program at the embassy which is called Czech Republic 100, which stared this year and will culminate next year, with a Czech Week in London which will commemorate the anniversaries I mentioned and also show the perspective for cooperation between the two countries.”

“We are celebrating 100 years since the founding of Czechoslovakia, 50 years since the Prague Spring but also 90 years since the first transmission of Czechoslovak Radio. Czechoslovak Radio is the second oldest radio in Europe, after the BBC. So I had a very good discussion with your director and the idea emerged to organize an international conference in London, which will be co-organized and co-sponsored by the BBC and Czech Radio, and will be devoted to the role of the media in present day society. The embassy is very supportive of this project because we want to show that we are a partner, and that we are different from some of the other countries we spoke about before. ”

You want to present 100 things Czech in the course of that year. Will you have the necessary platform to do that–for instance this concert in Hyde Park –was that difficult to arrange?

“As ambassador you have to combine these two things – to be enough Czech and to be an interesting person.”

“Of course, we could not undertake this without strong support from different partners. And since I took office in London I have tried to find as many partners as possible, tried to sell my ideas and find as many supporters as possible. And after a year and a half I can say that we have a group of friends who are helping us and doing a lot of things for us. And the highlight of the celebrations should be the concert of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in Hyde Park – a concert that the Czech Republic will dedicate to the British public. ”

In what areas do the Czechs and Brits most easily find common ground? Is it music, architecture, visual arts?

“That’s a very good question and food for thought. I have served as ambassador in different parts of the world – China, Italy, Brussels and elsewhere – and I was lucky enough to be in contact with Cardinal Špidlík in Rome. He was a great person, one of the biggest Czechs I know and his philosophy was that the Czechs have a capacity to “open hearts”. And if you open your heart and people recognize it, they will open their heart to you too. So the platform here is to “open our heart”. This is functioning quite well in many countries, though not so much in the UK (laughs). Here it takes much more time.”

Why is that?

“Well, it is due to the traditions, different culture, the British are more closed at the outset, it takes much more time to create an atmosphere of confidence.”

London,  photo: Miloš Turek
So where do your strengths lie in breaking down that reserve?

“I use different methods to overcome that reserve. Music is a good way, but also Czech cuisine, Czech drinks, we have a lot of social events at the embassy just to attract people, to speak with them, to show them what we are doing, where we are. Of course, for this you have to use different platforms, culture is a very important one, music, but lately also with the fine arts, paintings, next year we are planning many more exhibitions, for example the work of Vladimir Kokolia will be exhibited in one of the most prestigious galleries in Birmingham, at the Ikon. So we have a lot of plans how to do it. You have to think about what interests your partners in the given country have and if you can identify them then that works in your favour.”

You have been posted as ambassador in different parts of the world, you have served in Spain, Italy, Malta, China – very different cultural environments. Do you find yourself adapting to the traditions and behavior in a given country in order to facilitate communication with officials and the locals?

“That’s part of a broader question –what an ambassador should be like. I think you have to understand the ways of the country where you are, but I do not think it is necessary to adapt. What perhaps is more interesting and more important for your work is to be ”enough Czech”, to show that you are Czech, that you are representing this country and, it is equally important to be interesting in some way, to have something to show –be it sport, golf or literature – to be excellent in something. So you have to combine these two things – the Czech image and being an interesting person. If you can combine these two things I think it is good for every environment.”

Libor Sečka studied international relations in Moscow. He entered diplomatic service in the late 1980s. He has served as Czech ambassador in Mexico, Italy and Malta, Spain, China and is now posted the UK. He was also the country’s permanent representative to the EU in Brussels.

What do you love most about living in London, about being in the UK?

“There are many things I like about life in Great Britain, but if I have to say two or three things I would like to say that I love oysters and London is a paradise in this respect, the UK in general, the football is another thing that is absolutely amazing, it’s the best league in the world. We are living in the north part of London, in Hampstead, and nearby is Hampstead Heath, one of the biggest parks in London so I have started running now, because in London everybody runs, so I run in the park three to four times a week. And now we have discovered another fantastic activity, and that is navigating through canals, the UK has a lot of canals and the Brits like to go boating in them –so now I do the same with a group of friends and it is fascinating. I like it so much!”