Rosamund Johnston gives us the view from the Czech Republic, where the shockwaves of Brexit have hit home hard

We looked forward to joining the EU because of them, and they left because of us: this is how one Czech commentator summed up the UK’s decision to leave the European Union last week. More personally, Agata Drelova, a Slovak who lived in the UK until recently, feels implicated in the referendum result: “It was very difficult for me to see that the expanded version of the European Union was one of the reasons they wanted out.”

As Central European politicians consider their next steps in the wake of the Brexit vote on June 23, their citizens living in the United Kingdom “are already looking for alternatives elsewhere in the EU” according to Prague-based political analyst Jiri Pehe.

Immigrants from the Czech Republic and Slovakia were often evoked during the referendum campaign, referred to collectively alongside Poles, Hungarians, Bulgarians and Romanians as “Eastern European immigrants.” But how do members of this collective appear in the singular? And what does the Brexit vote mean for them?

Drelova came to Saint Andrews to study history in 2009. “I wanted to get a perspective on my region from outside my region” she explains. “The university was very international. I experienced Scottish nationalism, but I didn’t experience it as anti-European Union.” The following year, she began a doctorate in Exeter and was surprised to find what she describes as an anti-European element in English nationalism. Still, Thursday’s result left Drelova stunned. “Every nation has a bit of national pride. I never thought it could have geopolitical consequences.”

The historian has concerns about what Brexit means for Central and Eastern Europe. This region “has a history of powerful, antagonistic nationalisms,” she argues, “and the European Union has always been a project which neutralised these passions.” In Drelova’s view, the Brexit vote legitimises exclusionary nationalism on the rise in Central Europe.

But Czech pundit Jiri Pehe qualifies her view. Czech nationalists did applaud Brexit, he says, “but the public in general is surprised by the series of events this has triggered in Great Britain. The tone of public discussion is much more muted than one would have expected in light of supposed widespread Czech euro-scepticism.”

Having spent the past seven years in the United Kingdom, what does Drelova think of the anti-immigration rhetoric which proved so influential during the referendum campaign? “I received a British scholarship, so I was definitely profiting from the UK Government. But also I brought my own, fresh perspective.” It was Drelova’s job to challenge preconceptions in the lecture hall, but she sought to do so in social encounters as well. “Eastern European immigrants are not just hands but minds,” she insists. “They have their own interesting personal stories.” And it is these personal stories effaced by references to “swarms” of migrants, or billboards showing crowds of refugees on the move.

Today, Drelova lives in one of Europe’s newest border towns, Breclav in the Czech Republic, created by the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993. Ahead of the independence referendum in Scotland two years ago, Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Divorce” was discussed in the media as one possible model for an independent Scotland’s relationship with England. At a frontier rendered largely symbolic by the Czech Republic and Slovakia’s membership of the EU’s Schengen zone, freedom of movement continues to play a role in Drelova’s life today. “Being an immigrant, being constantly on the move is difficult, it makes you vulnerable, but at the same time it keeps your mind constantly open.” Drelova says this has helped her understand people in different positions.

Tereza Havacova is an English teacher in Brno. She burnished her language skills as a migrant worker in Scotland, coming to Edinburgh in 2010 to work as an au-pair. “I thought that immigration from Central Europe was a win-win situation,” she says, reflecting upon her one-year stay. “Obviously many people in the UK didn’t agree.”

Like most Czechs, Havacova was surprised by the vote for Brexit: “I hoped that arguments for staying in the EU like economic stability would outweigh populism. But unfortunately they didn’t.” The Czech media did report the divergence between Scottish and English referendum results which, for her, “only confirmed that the differences between Scotland and England are quite real and quite deep.”

Today, Havacova teaches a younger generation of Czechs English. Despite the European Union’s suggestion that it may be dropped as an official language, English remains one of primary means by which Europeans speak and work together. When asked what Brexit means for her personally, Havacova’s response is damning: “I must admit I’ve lost an illusion of the British being a decent and rational nation which cannot be manipulated by populist slogans.”

The Czech Republic’s accession to the EU in 2004 did not mark the beginning of Czech migration to the United Kingdom. During the Communist period, Great Britain offered political asylum to dissidents fleeing persecution in Czechoslovakia.

Tomas Bisek, who he moved to Cumbernauld in 1984, is one such individual. The Church of Scotland invited him to work for them after his license to serve as a Presbyterian minister was revoked when he fell foul of the Czechoslovak Communist regime. “Accepted by a congregation of the Church of Scotland we felt welcome,” recalls his wife Daniela. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989 the Bisek family gained UK citizenship which meant, says Daniela, “we could live a full life and take active part in society”.

The Bisek family is now split between the Czech Republic and the UK. “Our four children voted remain,” Tomas and Daniela explain. “Our two daughters live in Scotland and two sons live in England. Our children may end up living in separate countries.” Like so many others around the UK, Tomas and Daniela are saddened by the prospect of a family split by yet more borders. “The result of the referendum is a great disappointment for all the family,” they conclude.

Does Nicola Sturgeon’s insistence that European immigrants are welcome in Scotland affect Czechs’ and Slovaks’ view? Uncertainty prevails here, as on so many other points in the wake of Thursday’s vote. “It will depend on how things develop,” answers Jiri Pehe. “As long as Scotland is part of the UK, it cannot have a separate immigration policy, I suppose. But as a gesture it is nice.”

So, then, appears Brexit and its aftermath in Central Europe this week. The discussion as to where next in light of the vote only stands to be enriched by contributions from Drelova, Havacova and the Biseks’ compatriots living and working in Scotland.