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Brexit Tells East: Get Back to Where You Once Belonged

Photo: Shutterstock

In 1990, my family drove the 125 miles from a newly post-communist Prague to the Czechoslovak border with Austria. Crippling travel restrictions had recently been lifted, and we were going to visit the West for the very first time. I was ten years old and, though the line of cars at the border was several miles deep, and though it was sweltering in the back of our yellow Škoda, I spent the trip in a state of awe at our good fortune.

By the time I’d finished fourth grade, I’d heard stories of those who'd been killed while attempting to leave the prison that the Eastern Bloc was; the last to lose his life at the Czechoslovak border had in fact been a child, a boy slightly younger than myself, when his family tried to get into West Germany. But then, seemingly overnight, the old restrictive system had begun to disintegrate. After Hungary allowed a group of East Germans to cross into Austria, which was part of the West, many of their compatriots hoped to follow suit. Suddenly, thousands of East German refugees flooded into Prague, sleeping in makeshift tents in its historic center, right near our home, before they continued on their journey. 

To be permitted to cross a national border: this was the stuff of dreams. To realize, then and now, that you're not welcome when you've crossed, is the stuff of waking up.  
Wearing our best clothes so as to make a good impression, we practiced polite German phrases and conversation starters on each other, biding time until our grand audience with the West. But when we were finally let across, the first places we entered had posted notices that read, in glaring capitals: CZECHS, DO NOT STEAL HERE!

For the rest of the trip, we tried to keep our voices down, hoping that no one would notice our Czech license plates. As we drove deeper into Western Europe, the sense of longing grew. Surely we’d meet someone, somewhere, who would not be able to tell that we were only Czechs?

Of course, we were used to feeling second class. This was built into our upbringing and culture. We Czechs, like other Central Europeans, had lived for decades with a feeling of failure for not having been able to free ourselves from Soviet dominion, along with its absurd, backward and cruel politics, and its creaky military.

Even before communism ended, most of my friends and I suspected that shelves in stores were not meant to be empty, that toilet paper was not meant to be scarce, and that there were more enjoyable ways for a seven-year-old to spend an afternoon than standing guard in a tiny uniform in front of a pro-Soviet monument. Our parents, despite strict censorship, got their hands on samizdat copies of Orwell novels. None of us had any doubt that the Europe we knew was on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

The West, we sensed, was a better place: polished, rich, and free. My friends even had a slang word for cool: if something was top-notch awesome, it was “British.” Of course, we knew to say this only quietly, because any flattering talk of the West could be overheard by our schoolteachers and get our parents in trouble.

We were the West’s biggest fans and groupies, like players who hadn’t made it onto the team but kept cheering for it in the stands. Or like players sold to another team against their will because they did not matter enough. See under: History.

Václav Havel became president in 1989, and the last Soviet soldier left Czechoslovakia in 1991. The countries in my region were eager to join NATO and the EU, and we spent most of the 1990s making reforms and pleading with the West to let us in. Fortunately for those who wanted to look toward Europe, Russia, predominantly preoccupied with its own economic implosion, was busy.
The Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004. But the familiar long border lines lasted well into my 20s, with customs officers meticulously checking whether Czechs – and Hungarians, Slovaks, and Poles - headed for an Italian beach have enough money on them or whether they are the real owners of their cars, since the EU Schengen Area that guaranteed free movement of persons was not open to us until 2007.

There are criticisms—some unfounded, many wholly legitimate—that my region, just like everyone else, has of the EU today. But openness within Europe and between Europeans is the most valuable thing about our continent. It allowed us to fully engage with Europe, trade, make, buy, sell, move, love, learn, and earn. And more than Germany, France or Denmark, the UK was the country with decades of familiar music, movies, humor and literature and the greatest appeal. There are wonderful Scandinavian bands and Dutch DJs, but Adele, The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney sell out humongous arenas – still. Britain has the culture we, in the absence of our own regional idols and contemporary cultural giants, look up to. English is the second language we now most comfortably speak.

As a result, for those who wanted to try their luck abroad, many Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and other neighbors felt like the labor market in the United Kingdom and Ireland made most sense. London offers top English speaking opportunities in every imaginable field. It also allows multi-national couples a shot at success that other European metropoles simply lack. I work in international development and my husband in tech: Buona fortuna to us in finding a competitive career for both in Rome.

And so it is difficult for me not to take the UK rejection to stay open to Europe personally. Polls show that the decision was largely driven by backlash against immigration, and that some of the districts with the highest support for Brexit were those that had high concentrations of Poles, Romanians and other Eastern and Central Europeans. Laminated cards reading, “No more Polish vermin” and “Go home Polish scum” were found in Cambridgeshire after the vote, and the UK Mirror just ran an alarmist headline, “Brexit to cause immigration surge as 500,000 East Europeans 'will rush in before borders close.'”

Second class Europeans—Europeans who grew up with smuggled vinyls, dreams of owning real jeans, while hiding from informers and censors, or whose parents did—are not so welcome in the Europe we thought we’d come to share. It does not need to be printed out in capital letters to be obvious.

But many people on the streets of Prague, Bratislava, and Warsaw understand another thing, too. An inward looking, destabilized European Union is not good for anyone except for Russia, which has never stopped seeing our region as an area to claim, and whose now not so creaky military and bolder agents have been pushing closer. At this time, we need a strong and unified EU to defend the sanctions against Russia for annexing Crimea. We need the bandwidth to focus on Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and even Poland, all increasingly worried about their long-term security. Given that for a country like mine, the last two and a half decades were the longest period of freedom in modern history, we don’t take not being invaded for granted. It is truly disheartening that it was we, and other immigrants, who are perceived as the real threat to stability.

As Havel pointed out, a defining Czech characteristic is self-doubt. Some say anxiety. I feel both now more than ever. Despite our best efforts, we were not able to hide deeper into Europe all.


Zuzana Boehmová is a gender consultant at New America.