The View from Over Here
As a British expat (dare I say, ‘immigrant’) living in the Czech Republic, the ongoing ‘Brexit’ debate has been a matter of some personal importance (I like not needing a visa….) while it has also seemed very far away and removed from my daily life. The headlines I see on this website or that seem so often to be more political grandstanding than reasoned debate, more a competition about who can shout the loudest than who can offer the most coherent view for the future of the UK. It’s getting rather tiring, even from a distance of 1000 miles.
I don’t want to offer a coherent view for the future of our nation; I don’t have one. I don’t want to persuade you to support one side or the other, though I do have a view which will become obvious. I don’t think people are stupid if they disagree with me. What I do want to do is offer some thoughts, from here in the centre of Europe, about some of the issues at the heart of the debate. These will be neither definitive nor that well informed, but hopefully they will at least provoke some thoughts somewhere.
It’s often an awkward moment here in ‘Czechia’ (not to be confused with ‘Chechnya’) when a foreigner casually refers to their surroundings as ‘Eastern Europe.’ The average Czech person would not consider themselves to be Eastern, but Central European. I would have shrugged at the difference in the past myself; what’s so different? Though I would agree that, shamefully, Eastern European comes with a negative connotation in my head, even now. That’s where all those immigrants come from right? If you look at a map of the Czech Republic, you can see clearly why Czechs could be offended and perplexed by their designation as ‘Eastern.’ South of Germany, North of Austria and Italy, why should the Czech Republic be Eastern? Of course, the shared Slavic culture does link it with many of its neighbours to the East, but otherwise Prague is similar in many ways to its more ‘Western’ bordering nations.
To Czech ears, many of the arguments shouted from the rooftops in London seem at best ill-informed, at worst painfully ignorant. And I mean arguments from both sides. There is little real understanding in the UK of what EU membership has meant, still means, to many countries that have joined more recently. The Czech Republic joined the EU, along with many other nations, in 2004, finally ending the lingering feeling of being stuck behind the ‘Iron Curtain.’ Joining the EU was a moment of acceptance, of vindication, of celebration, marking the end of a long struggle for freedom.
Now, I realise that there are myriad critics of the EU here in the Czech Republic, not least President Milos Zeman. But for a lot of Czechs, the opportunity to cross the borders into Germany and Austria free from passports or visas was a momentous change. In the UK, we don’t have the same perspective on crossing borders, island nation that we are, but imagine being able to finally cross the border freely after more than 60 years of being unable to do so. Imagine if that border was in view of your house. For me, this is an undeniably positive change. One that I, admittedly, take for granted in the 21st Century. The reminder that this wasn’t the case for so long is helpful to me.
For the Czech Republic, as for many nations, gaining entry to the EU, rightly or wrongly, was the seal of approval on their ‘freedom.’ For the UK, it has often been seen as a backwards, or perhaps sideways, step away from freedom. We have been privileged to enjoy a history relatively free from invasion and oppression, enabling us to punch above our weight in terms of contributions to the world.
Indeed, Czechs recognise this. I came across an interesting article recently, quoting from a letter written by prominent Czechs, including the playwright Tom Stoppard, encouraging the UK to stay in the EU. This quote made the point well: “Without the British legacy of democratic institutions, entrepreneurial spirit, common sense and pragmatic approach to problem-solving, the west as we know it would be much weakened, politically and spiritually.”
The other thing I have been caused to reflect upon differently, here in Europe’s centre, is our current refugee crisis. The Czech Republic has mostly served as a transit route for refugees travelling to Austria or Germany, so there has not been a massive influx of people staying in the country. Unfortunately, this is due to the incredibly negative perception of immigrants in general, Muslims in particular, that is present in the country. The general feeling from the government has been one of suspicion and hostility. Refugees have been interned and thoroughly checked before they have been allowed to move on. Some have been sent back to war zones.
Even growing up in a very middle class and mono-cultural area of the UK, I have always been aware of the benefits of a multi-cultural society. I have always seen a mixture of cultures and races as a good thing. The simple fact is that, for at least the last 60 years, the Czech Republic has been almost exclusively white. This is slowly changing, but I feel that, in this area, this country could learn from the UK, where we have long heralded the positive sides of multiculturalism.
In the UK, as threatened as we may feel by unrestricted immigration, let alone refugees, we have something to offer, dare I say teach, other parts of the European Union. As the letter I mentioned earlier says; “Britain was one of the first EU countries to have opened its borders to Czech workers, students and entrepreneurs, with benefits shared on both sides.” I have benefited myself from this mutual openness.
Living in Europe has been a wonderful experience for me. I know that it also makes me incredibly biased in this debate. I also know that I would most likely be able to stay here in Prague in the case of Brexit. That doesn’t stop me seeing what membership of the EU has meant to this nation. How it has helped heal a part of the world that was, for so long, broken by war and division. In many ways, the EU has made this part of the world feel more truly European. In a way taken for granted, at least by me, for many years.