Czechs and Brexit Britain: Part 1 – Caught up in the mess

Photo: Pete Linforth, Pixabay / CC0

As of February the UK has officially left the European Union and a new relationship is currently being negotiated between the two international actors. The Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs is doing its best to ensure that Czech expats apply for “settled status” in Britain. However, questions regarding future agreements on programmes that have thus far been key in fostering a strong Czech presence in the UK remain.

Photo: Pete Linforth, Pixabay / CC0
Britain may have already officially left the European Union, but the real palpable Brexit is yet to come.

Travel and trade rules remain in place until the end of 2020 in what has been commonly referred to as the “transition period” during which a new trade and legal relationship with the EU is set to be negotiated. Meanwhile, EU citizens living in the UK have to register for “settled status” until June 30, 2021, in order be allowed to remain resident in the country.

70,000 “unsettled” Czechs

There are currently around 100,000 Czechs living in the United Kingdom according to estimates of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and only around a third, some 33,000, have applied for the settled status scheme thus far.

To deal with the expected surge in the need for administrative services, the ministry opened up a consulate in Manchester in 2019 to reach out to the sizable Czech community in the north of the UK.

Aside from this, a special information campaign was launched for Czechs in Britain last year, Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček said following his visit to the consulate on Friday.

“We have a special website dedicated to Brexit and what it means for the Czech community in the UK, what requirements they have to meet and how they can register in the EU settlement scheme.

Foreign Minister Petříček meeting with the Czech community at the Consulate in Manchester, photo: Tom McEnchroe
“I would highly recommend to all Czech citizens who want to stay in the UK not to wait until the last moment with the registration and to get in contact with representatives of the community or with our consulate and embassy in order to get more information, especially when it comes to having proper documentation.

“It takes some time to get a new passport or new documents necessary for the registration and it is not wise to leave it for the last moment.”

To go ahead with the settled scheme application, EU residents need to have a passport, national identity card or biometric residence card. Therefore, those who leave the application process to the last moment and find out they have to get these other documents in order first may be in for an unwelcome surprise when the deadline date arrives next year.

That this is an issue was confirmed when Foreign Minister Petříček said on Friday that there are thousands of people who, for example, have outdated passports.

One of the reasons why the minister visited Manchester was to meet with local Czech community representatives.

From Facebook groups and university societies, to schools and community centres, many Czechs living in the big cities of England’s North West do keep in touch and it is the hope of the local mission that through close cooperation with these groups they can maximise their reach.

One of those who have been working closely with the embassy in this area is Tomáš Kostečka, the chairman and CEO of the Czech Comenius School in the UK, who lives in Leeds.

He explained what he believes are the reasons why there are still two thirds of Czechs who have not started with the application procedure.

“There is an outstanding number of 70,000 Czechs who haven’t applied yet.

“We believe that there are around 10,000 of them who have dual citizenship status. That means they have both British and Czech citizenship and therefore do not need to apply for settled status.

Tomáš Kostečka, photo: archive of Tomáš Kostečka
“Then there is a sizeable amount of Czechs, around half of the total number, who have worked here for long enough and have residency and all of the documents required to get the settled status, but they just wait for the last minute and do not see any urgency right now. That is probably the ‘easier’ half of the people who haven’t applied yet.”

Where he does see urgency, is in the other half of unregistered Czechs. Around 15,000 to 20,000 of them are believed not to have applied yet because they either do not have valid documents, or lack the capacity to go ahead with the process, whether for physical reasons, their financial situation, lack of documents, or mental impairments.

A substantial amount of this endangered segment, some 15,000 are Roma, he says. If they were forced to return to their original homeland, Mr Kostečka believes many of them, especially the children, could find themselves being torn out of communities where they are acclimatised and thrust into what would now be a foreign environment.

“The problem is that many of the children, or mostly all of them, are doing really well with their integration here. They have good results at school and we expect that they could be successful professionals later and have good results in their life.

“However, they are now only halfway in their journey and us teachers in the UK, especially the Czech teachers, worry that these children will be taken out of the British education system and will really struggle when they come to the Czech Republic.

“The Czech system is very different to the British one. For example, here there are just subjects such as English and Mathematics as well as a couple of subjects in the afternoon. In the Czech Republic on the other hand there are many more subjects in primary schools.

“Furthermore, they do not speak fluent Czech, so they will struggle. Are Czech schools ready to accept something like 5,000 new pupils who don’t speak Czech? And where is the accommodation for those families?”

Another problem would be the integration of the group into Czech society. There is a sizeable community of Roma living in the Czech Republic right now. However, according to Mr Kostečka, those that have moved to the UK have since established a new identity.

“They are not Czech Roma anymore. Yes, they are Czech and they are Roma, but they are different to their compatriots in the Czech Republic and we cannot expect that they would be easily accepted by their compatriots if they returned home now. They are slightly culturally different now.”

Photo: Jiří Hošek / Czech Radio
“Even if the Czech Republic is prepared, the question is whether this will have a positive outcome. I don’t think so, because the children will not be able to do better than they do here. That is my main worry.

“We are really grateful to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for opening the consulate here in Manchester, because that really helps. However, the consulate also has limits to its operational capacity and they will not be able to provide service for 5,000 sudden applications in one month.

“That is why we are really trying to highlight the issue within the community that they have to sort out their ID’s now and make sure they are valid.”

It is in this aspect that local community groups such as the Comenius School are especially useful.

Mr Kostečka and his team have personally offered support to more than 1,500 Czechs in sorting out their applications over the past seven months, going through the individual stages with them and offering the use of their computers if need be.

However, he says that just in Leeds, there are around 3,500 people who still need to apply and things could get quite tight towards the deadline date.

It should be said that the lateness of applications is not just an issue among the Czech minority in the UK. The local consul, Ivo Losman says that that many EU missions in the UK are currently facing this problem.

Problems for Czech schools

Another potential threat that Brexit poses is that to local Czech schools.

According to Foreign Ministry data from 2018, there are 11 schools in the UK focused on teaching the Czech language, geography, history and culture to expats living in the country. Many of them operate on tight budgets relying almost solely on tuition fees paid by the parents of their students.

Pavla Matásková, is the director of the Czech School in Manchester as well as the vice-chair of the Association of Czech and Slovak Schools in the UK.

“There is a little bit of a threat of our pupils going back home, which has already happened in a few cases. Not many, it should be stressed, but a few families have moved out.

Pavla Matásková, photo: archive of Czech School & Community Manchester
“We are a fee paying school and, even though we get some subsidies or grants, we very much rely on our fees. There was a little bit of an exodus.”

A no less important problem is that of securing the Czech teachers themselves. Many of them are supplied through the EU’s signature Erasmus+ programme for supporting education, training, youth and sport in Europe. Aside from the well-known study abroad opportunities it also offers funded traineeships for students during their year abroad.

For the Czech school in Manchester this is a blessing, as Ms Matásková explains.

“We very much rely on students from the Czech Republic coming over here and teaching at our school, because we do not have to pay them a salary and we obviously do not have many funds. So that is my second biggest worry, not having any Ersamus+ students.”

The current Erasmus+ programme with a total budget allocation of EUR 14.7 billion is set to run out at the end of this year and the UK has pledged to remain part of the scheme until it runs out. The problem is what happens after the current Erasmus+ ends?

According to the European Commission the “possible participation of the UK in future programmes after 2020 will depend on the outcome of the overall negotiations on the future relationship between the two parties” and it is precisely the possibility of the UK’s withdrawal that worries Ms Matásková and her colleagues.

This issue, she says, was also pressed during Friday’s meeting with Foreign Minister Petříček, as there are hopes that direct negotiations between the Czech Republic and Britain could help bring about a solution.

“Basically, what I asked was, if this issue is not resolved to a sufficient degree on the UK-EU basis, will the Czech Republic deal with the rest through bi-lateral contracts?

“I think I was given a positive answer that bi-lateral negotiations will step in, if the issue is not resolved on the UK-EU level.”

The future of Erasmus

It is not only funded exchange programmes in places including the UK that EU students have been benefitting from. They also pay the same tuition fees that British students do. This is a very important factor in deciding whether to study in Britain for most Czech students who would otherwise have to pay “international student” fees. The difference between the two can be as high as GBP 28,750 in tuition fees per year.

Here, the issue seems more straightforward. Those EU students who applied to study in the UK with the start date being an academic year when Britain was still part of the Erasmus scheme will not see their tuition fees rise.

Foreign Ministry information on what Czechs living in Britain need to get sorted can be found here: www.mzv.cz/london/cz/konzularni_a_vizove_informace/brexit/pobyt_ceskych_obcanu_v_uk.html

However, those who are thinking of applying for academic years after Brexit are solely dependent on the results of the UK-EU negotiations that are currently underway. There is no clear decision within the Czech government whether bilateral negotiations would be set up to form an equivalent of Erasmus between Czechia and Britain if negotiations between the European bloc and the UK lead to a discontinuation of the programme.

The question is also how far bi-lateral negotiations can go, without undermining the negotiating unity and thus combined strength of the European Union.

However, from what was said during the minister’s visit it seems that bilateral negations specifically regarding the scientific cooperation between Czech and British universities could go ahead and would likely be pursued if necessary.

Overall, those Czech expats living in the UK who spoke to Radio Prague International did not seem too worried about Brexit and stressed the importance of understanding the reasons why Britons chose to leave.