Britain, our role model in language, constitutional law, education and business, would gradually feel farther and farther away
I want to encourage my children to learn English, although they are not always as enthusiastic as I would wish. So this year I am taking them for the first time to London, to show them the cradle of that global language, liberal political tradition – and Harry Potter. If something could work as a magnet and motivation, it is this English hero from a typically British school and the places connected with him.
We have planned our trip for just before the referendum in which Britons – with similar ambivalence to that of my children – will decide whether they want to stay in the European Union. In fact, there are mixed feelings on both sides of the channel, as the post-communist countries of Central Europe take a second look at their ties to the United Kingdom and wonder why they should care whether or not it remains part of the EU.
A role model
First, there are some obvious facts. There are more than a half million Poles and tens of thousands of Czechs or Slovaks working in the United Kingdom. London is not only an important tourist destination; it is also an ally in trade. The U.K. is the fourth largest trading partner for Poland and the fifth for the Czech Republic. The British government quite recently increased its efforts to expand the presence of British companies in Central Europe. Jaguar Land Rover (even though it’s now a de facto Indian company) last year announced the building of its first overseas factory in Slovakia.
Britain is the most important political ally in the EU for countries like Poland or the Czech Republic, whose conservatives are persuaded that David Cameron’s party is their closest, natural political partner and model. We can dispute that, but British political institutions and traditions are one of the greatest inspirations and sources of political knowledge in the CEE. Of course the lower language barrier plays a role, but when redesigning our political systems after the fall of communism, British liberalism was the strongest counterbalance to the more rigid continental approaches.
Then there are some less obvious things that have an influence on our daily life. English is the lingua franca of the modern world and while the Americans were the first and the most numerous English speakers who came after 1989, it is language certification from the British Council that opens Western universities’ doors for ambitious young people, for whom Oxford or Cambridge are still the dream destinations.
A similar argument could be used for business. The City attracts all those young entrepreneurs with bright ideas who need venture capital and think Silicon Valley is too far. The latest example is the nominally Estonian but London-based Transferwise, which competes with banks by offering cheaper international money transfers. Britain offers a more flexible alternative to continental business and economic models, even if this is more assumption than reality.
British media institutions are – again – unachievable role models for Central Europe. In every dispute on media freedom, you find “the BBC argument,” setting the standard of public media independence on politics and business. And again, due to a lower language barrier British media are followed closely in the region – and so are British celebrities. And James Bond. And the Queen and her lovely growing family, of course.
Ties that bind
There are strong historical bonds from World War II when pilots from Poland and Czechoslovakia fought alongside Britain against the Nazis. London hosted independent governments in exile while Central Europe was occupied.
Then there is the Premier League that is somehow more popular than other European football leagues. But that could be a purely Czech phenomenon, because of goalkeeper Petr Čech. (Striker Robert Lewandowski turns Polish attention more to the Bundesliga.)
Of course these things would not disappear overnight. But a Britain outside the EU would become a bit more distant, and the already weakened liberal, free-trade voices inside the Union would be stripped of a powerful ally.
Like the EU, with Brexit, Central Europe would lose a part of itself.