Most of the academics – not only foreigners – working in the UK were against Brexit. Now they are waiting. Environmentalist Petr Jehlička would have to do a lot of paperwork to stay there. Briton Samuel Buck, on the other hand, will seek a working visa to continue working at Eli Beamlines near Prague, Czech Republic. And Gabriela Matoušková, who works at Coventry University, is glad to get settled status – her son has British citizenship and the family is not considering going back to the Czech Republic.
Petr Jehlička, an expert on geography, left for the UK twice – he studied there in the 1990s and then moved there in 2002. For the past 16 years, he has been living with his family north of London in Milton Keynes and works as a distance teacher of environmental geography at the Open University. For the last ten years, his focus has been on everyday environmentalism. “This research examines social practices that have an impact on the environment. These are everyday behaviours that are related to environmental protection, but people don’t see them that way, they just take them as a matter of fact – for example, sharing home-grown food,” says the 53-year old researcher, who was awarded his PhD in Social and Political Science by the University of Cambridge.
Returning to England was not his ambition; it happened by accident. As he recalls, “I was in Florence for a year. A friend of mine from England came for a conference and said, ‘I’m teaching at the Open University and we are hiring, you should apply’. So I applied for the position and was selected.” His job includes developing distance learning courses for undergraduate students, including homework assignment and exams. He is also responsible for the quality of the courses and he works with PhD students as a supervisor.
Jehlička says that Eastern and Central Europe was all the rage in the UK in the early 1990s, as was the first post-communist Czechoslovak president, Václav Havel. However, this trend gradually petered out. “Right now, this area is at the periphery of both social and research interest and nobody sees it as a place with potential. We are all East Europeans to them, from Estonia to Macedonia and Ukraine, an indistinguishable mass.”
Most academics are against Brexit
Petr Jehlička is a dedicated supporter of the anti-Brexit campaign, contributing both financially and by participating in protest marches. “I remember two Fridays in my life: one was 17 November 1989, the date of the student demonstration that started the end of communism in Czechoslovakia, and the other was 23 June 2016. I know exactly what I was doing on those days,” he says. The day after the Brexit referendum, he was on a business trip. He woke up at 7 a.m. in his hotel and turned on the TV. “I saw Nigel Farage laughing and knew what happened. It was quite depressing to realise that the UK was out,” he recalls.
In Jehlička’s opinion, there are very few academics that support the British exit from the EU. They are just a handful compared to the majority who are against. “It turns out that my colleagues are envious of my Czech passport, which is a very new situation indeed. I would have never thought this could happen,” he says with a laugh. Some Brits have also apparently started looking for Irish citizens among their grandparents because finding them would gain them Irish citizenship. In Jehlička’s opinion, “Any European passport now comes in handy in the UK”. And his opinion is borne out by the figures. The Guardian, among others, says that the number of newly issued Irish passports, which is now approaching 160,000 a year since the referendum, is record-breaking.
The pound is falling while red tape is on the rise
Some of the trouble – like the weakening pound – started as soon as the referendum was decided. “Everyone in the UK is now 15% poorer than the rest of Europe because that’s how much the pound has fallen,” says Jehlička. He also says that so far, life in the UK has been easy for EU citizens from other countries. “Things like opening a bank account, sending your kids to school, access to healthcare or registering in European and local elections – all that was very easy in the UK. It’s much more complicated for European expats living in other EU countries. But it has already started to change,” he says. While he has not yet been contacted by the Czech authorities, such as the embassy, a group of EU citizens at his university started a website with practical information.
“This has been my source of information. You can apply for British citizenship, but one application costs £1,330 (39,000 Czech crowns), which is a lot for a whole family. You also have to pledge your allegiance to the Queen, and there’s no guarantee that you will pass the test,” he adds.
As Jehlička is a non-UK EU citizen, Brexit also means several other things for him. On 29 March 2019, when the UK leaves the EU, his permanent residence in the UK will expire. For this reason, he has to apply online for what is known as settled status. “The pilot starts from 1 November. It will cost £65 (1,900 Czech crowns) and you must have an Android smartphone because the app doesn’t work on iPhone,” adds Jehlička. The pilot version is designed for those working in healthcare and at universities. “I think I’ll be able to try from 15 November, but the rest of the people will have to wait; nobody knows for how long. The pilot might also fail, which would mean everybody has to do it again. It’s all rather unpleasant,” he says.
It’s better to be part of a group, says a young Brit from a Czech laser centre
Even though Samuel Buck is only 26, he has been a member of one of the most important research projects in Europe for three years. The British researcher works in ELI Beamlines in Dolní Břežany near Prague, helping to develop the world’s most intense laser system. He is a member of the laser development team that builds, tests, and improves large laser systems, which will one day be used for further research including cancer treatment.
He found his current job at ELI Beamlines online. “I heard about ELI when I worked in another similar facility in the UK, so I already had relevant experience in the field,” says Buck, who graduated in maths and physics from the UK University of Bath near Bristol. After a Skype interview, he came straight to the Czech Republic to see the ELI centre and Prague. “I was taken by both,” recalls Buck, who now lives in Prague in a shared apartment.
He enjoys living in the capital, where, he says, there is always something to do, and also appreciates the friendly demeanour of his colleagues. While his lack of knowledge of Czech sometimes makes life hard for him, his friends and colleagues support and encourage him. He is also more than happy with his work: “I have an exciting job that keeps changing and I have a lot of responsibility within the project.” As he says, the only thing he does not like about living in the Czech Republic are the long and cold winters, when the whole city seems to be asleep.
The UK gets more from the EU than meets the eye
Buck’s opinion on Brexit is clear: he is for remaining in the EU. “Many people like the idea of independence, that’s what makes Brexit so attractive and popular. But the situation is much more complex, and I think that the UK gets much more out of its membership in the EU than meets the eye,” he says, adding that research, in particular, requires a lot of cooperation.
“Just take a look at any research centre or university and take note of their ethnic diversity. Research requires a lot of input, both in funding and in talent, and ELI is a great example of international cooperation and funding. This project is most likely too expensive for any single European country to fund on its own,” says Buck. In his opinion, ELI Beamlines is an excellent example of the benefits that EU countries get from their membership. “However, I expect that there are many other professional and social areas where the same rule applies: it’s better to be part of a group than to be on your own,” he adds.
However, his anti-Brexit attitude sets Buck apart from many of the people he knows. “I’m from the country and many of my friends and family voted to leave the EU. Most people live from day to day and aren’t very interested in understanding the consequences of leaving the EU,” he thinks. He describes a fictional couple, Mr and Mrs Smith, as an example of the people who voted to leave: “They work locally, they go grocery shopping to the nearest town, and spend their weekends with family and friends. Why should they worry about work and travel opportunities in the EU? Why should members of the European Parliament make decisions for them? The idea of an ‘independent’ state with fewer people whose language they don’t understand and less money from the public budget spent on the support of non-British families sounds much more attractive to them,” he says about the thinking of the people who were persuaded by the Leave campaign.
When asked what Brexit will mean for him and the other UK researchers in the EU, he cannot be sure. After all, many top UK politicians do not seem to have a clear answer, either. “Is there anyone who knows what’s going to happen?” he says. “The 1.3 million British people living in other EU countries are not such a big deal compared with the rest of the UK’s current agenda. I follow the news to see what is going on and what will happen next, but I haven’t found any clear-cut answers yet.” However, Buck expects that his official status will change, and he will be in the same situation as his colleagues from non-EU states. “I guess I’ll have to get a work visa, but I hope that there won’t be many other changes for me in the Czech Republic,” he says.
Brexit came as a surprise to everyone, but I’ll keep my Czech citizenship
When 15-year-old Gabriela Matoušková left for her first exchange programme in the US, it was just the beginning. She worked in various European countries before settling in Coventry close to Birmingham in the UK and completed her MBA in Leadership at Coventry University. Matoušková, who is now forty, decided to stay at the university and has been working there for eleven years now. Her job is with the Coventry University Social Enterprise, the only university-run social enterprise in the UK, whose task is to help students, university employees, and others implement their social enterprise business ideas.
“Social entrepreneurship has been growing in the UK year-on-year and our mission is to support this trend. For me personally, it is a very interesting topic. As part of my job, I work on social innovation with scientists who want their research to be beneficial to society, including through social enterprises,” explains Matoušková.
From an accountant to a university employee
In the end, her reason for choosing the UK was love. She met her British boyfriend in 2003 in Prague and after a long-distance relationship, where they were visiting each other in the Czech Republic and the UK, she decided to move to the UK in 2004 when the Czech Republic joined the EU. Before receiving an offer to join the Coventry University office providing support for research funding applications, she worked for an accounting firm. “Even though my relationship didn’t work out in the end, after almost 10 years together, I decided to stay in the UK. One good reason was our son Ethan, who was just 18 months old when we broke up.” Ethan is now seven and after several years as a single parent, she met her current partner and they have now been together for three years.
Coventry is a multicultural city with a high ratio of immigrants. There are 20,000 students from 140 countries at the two local universities. As Matoušková says, with numbers like these, it can be hard for the locals to differentiate who comes from where. There were many Polish people in Coventry when she arrived, so the locals thought she was also Polish. However, she says that Czechs are, in general, seen as hard-working people in the UK and that the Czech proverb about Czechs being good handymen definitely proves to be true in the UK.
The news about Brexit came as a surprise to everyone. “The close results – 48% for remaining and 52% for leaving – are confirmation of this. I was for remaining, of course, but I couldn’t vote. I have Czech citizenship, so I can only vote in local elections,” explains Matoušková. She says it felt strange to just sit and wait while others were making a decision that was so close to home and would have consequences for her future. “It was, nevertheless, a free decision of the majority, however slim, of British citizens and I respect that. In spite of that, I’m still a Czech and I will keep my Czech passport and citizenship,” she says decidedly, adding that her view of Brexit is not exceptional, as most academics at UK universities support remaining in the EU. “However, the question now probably isn’t ‘remain or leave’ anymore, but how this will turn out and what will be the consequences – the impact of Brexit on our personal lives as well as on free movement, research, and projects,” says Matoušková.
University offers help to non-British employees
Matoušková is not worried that she could get into trouble due to Brexit. “I’ve lived in the UK for 14 years and my 7-year-old son is a British citizen. I don’t expect any problems for me personally; according to government information, I will be granted a settled status. However, things will be more complicated for those who have been here for less than five years,” thinks Matoušková.
Coventry University, where Matoušková works, is very pro-active in helping with Brexit issues and has organised several meetings with experts for its non-UK employees, where people can receive advice and tips on what to do. “It is highly individual, though, based on your specific situation. The university also offers loans to those who need to apply for a permit for themselves and their families, which could prove to be too expensive. As everything is still being negotiated, nobody can be any more specific at this point,” she concludes.
The author is a journalist, working in Hospodářské noviny Daily.