Waiting for Brexit: Czechs in the UK look ahead to 2019

London, photo: Ian Willoughby

Like people from around the European Union, many in the United Kingdom’s sizable Czech community are waiting anxiously to see whether and how the country’s departure from the bloc in 2019 will impact their lives. But what are the specific concerns of Czechs regarding Brexit?

Jiří Šiftař,  photo: archive of Jiří Šiftař
To try to gauge the mood among Czechs in the UK ahead of the country’s planned exit from the EU, I first visit a trendy restaurant by Borough Market in Southwark – a stone’s throw from London Bridge – to meet Jiří Šiftař.

Huge on Instagram as @jeera (he has over a quarter of a million followers), Šiftař works as a designer, creating client interfaces for Lloyds, one of England’s oldest banks.

He obtained British citizenship even before the Brexit referendum in June 2016.

“I had a hunch that it might happen and I started taking those steps even before the vote, just to stay on the safe side.

“I’m going to marry an English citizen so I would probably get that citizenship anyway. But maybe this way she can never say that I only married her to get citizenship!”

Despite his inkling that the Leave side would win, Jiří Šiftař is strongly opposed to Brexit and says he couldn’t believe his eyes when the outcome of the vote flashed up on his phone when he was on a short visit to his native Opava.

He says there’s been a mixed reaction among the Czechs and other Europeans he knows.

“Mostly people who are working in kind of the same area as me, in design and let’s say some more educated roles, they feel – probably the same as me – that nothing has happened yet and possibly nothing’s going to change, so we stay carefully optimistic.

“But my impression is that people who work in mostly kind of manual jobs and services feel disappointed and probably don’t feel very wanted or welcome in this country.

“And definitely a lot of them have moved or are preparing to move back to their countries. Which is sad.”

Libor Sečka,  photo: Ian Willoughby
Prague’s ambassador to the Court of St. James’s is Libor Sečka. At his office at the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Notting Hill, Mr. Sečka tells me that in summer 2016, in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, some Czechs were the target of anti-migrant sentiment.

“I met some people in Birmingham and Manchester, where we have a lot of Czech nationals, and they had some unpleasant feeling sometimes that people didn’t look at them positively when they were speaking the Czech language in the streets. So we had some individual cases, but I wouldn’t like to generalise.”

While such tensions soon calmed, says Ambassador Sečka, the Czech community in the UK – estimated to number between 60,000 and 100,000 – do have several concerns regarding Brexit.

“Some people would like to know more information about the possibility to work here – if there will be some changes.

“A category that is very much worried are students, because they don’t know what their status will be. They are not working people.

“And another issue is if people have the possibility to have family members here. So we could perhaps name these three categories.”

In the meantime, since the Brexit referendum around 100 UK citizens have applied for Czech citizenship via the country’s London Embassy. Libor Sečka:

“There are different reasons, different cases. We have parents who would like to offer this possibility to their children. But we also have adult people, retired people, who would like to come back to their origins now.

“So we are in the process and studying case by case and I think in the majority of cases we will reply in a satisfactory way.”

Klára Skřivánková,  photo: archive of Anti-Slavery
Klára Skřivánková is manager for the UK and Europe at Anti-Slavery, the world’s oldest human rights organisation. The Czech married her Northern Irish partner on June 23, 2016, the very day of the Brexit vote – but still found time to vote no.

“Me and my husband have both been able to engage freedom of movement and therefore we were able to meet, so that’s one thing.

“But also professionally I have seen the benefits of freedom of movement. And just the whole concept of actually being open to the world, open to the challenges.

“I know probably know more about how the European Union works, about the positives but also about some of the weaknesses. But I think the basic principles upon which the European project was based are fantastic.”

As a UK citizen Skřivánková’s own rights will be secure once Brexit becomes reality in March 2019.

But she says she and her friends from around Europe were deeply offended by some of the Leave campaigners’ rhetoric. What’s more, the referendum has affected her relationship to the place she has called home for 12 years.

“I don’t recognise the country that I lived in before. It’s really shocking the level of ignorance, misinformation, arrogance that I see.

“But also the absence of any intellectual debate and how facts are rejected or completely ignored.

“I’ve got much less respect for a lot that I respected before about this country. I feel like I no longer understand parts of this country.”

Ladislav Hornan was one of the thousands of people who fled Czechoslovakia after the Soviet-led invasion of 1968. He has enjoyed a very successful career in the UK and has been a partner at a major accountancy firm in the City, the centre of London’s enormous financial industry, for decades.

Ladislav Hornan,  photo: Ian Willoughby
Today Hornan is also president of the British Czech and Slovak Association. He says the older members of the community were divided on Brexit. But he voted for.

“I think that the European project has gone astray. It’s become a very hugely politicised project.

“What I and other Brits voted for when we did, back in the ‘70s, was basically an economic community which was great and would have benefitted everybody.

“And I think that with a bit of good fortune, and good negotiations, we’ll put Britain back where it should have been.”

Hornan concedes that a lot remains unclear about Brexit. But the City executive says the UK has successfully reinvented itself in the past and will surely do so again.

“They will lose some financial institutions, but they will only be replaced by some institutions that the UK will need to put in place. Because the financial world is incredibly complex so you can’t be without them.

“We won’t be part of the European ones but we’ll have our own. But in terms of work, Frankfurt and Paris have less than 10 percent of the expertise and the workforce in the financial services industry compared to London.

“So it’s not going to be an overnight change and a loss to the UK.”

Human rights campaigner Klára Skřivánková is less sanguine about what Great Britain’s 2019 departure from the EU will bring.

“I think what will happen, and what I fear will happen, is that the cliff edge that we keep talking about is awaiting. That there is a complete lack of plan and preparation. That there’ll be a significant economic impact, and unfortunately the people who might have believed that the vote to leave the EU will improve their living standards will be hit the hardest.”

Back in Southwark, web designer Jiří Šiftař says he too is bracing for the possible financial impact of Brexit. But nevertheless he’s trying to maintain a positive outlook.

London,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“I just don’t know how it’s going to be in the future. And obviously I’m worried about the economic situation of the United Kingdom.

“That’s probably my biggest worry: jobs, the strength of the currency, the overall economy. Because I have invested in London. I got a property and I’m on the property market now.

“But somewhere deep inside I really hope that somehow – magically maybe! – it’s not going to be as bad as it might be.”