CENTRAL EUROPE’S RETURNEES – A MIX OF THE RELIEVED AND THE RELUCTANT

With many citing reasons other than politics for their return home and some intending either to return to the UK or try their chances elsewhere in the EU, any boost to the region may not be lasting

Eva Pavelkova moved to the UK in 2006, shortly after graduating as a vet in the Czech Republic. In December, although worried about jobs, money and bureaucracy, she returned to Prague with her British husband in tow.

“Britain suddenly seemed to change,” the 39-year-old, who recently translated a collection of Brexit testimonies by EU citizens published by the In Limbo Project, tells BIRN. “It was no longer home.”

Eva is one of hundreds of thousands of Czechs, Hungarians, Poles and Slovaks who, after moving to the UK in search of a better life, more opportunities, adventure and money when EU membership opened the door in 2004, have decided to return home following the UK’s 2016 decision to leave the EU, which officially happened in 2020.

Precise numbers are hard to come by, but it’s clear there has been an eastward migration of people over the last few years, partly reversing the flows in the years after the four Central European nations joined the EU.

In a recent paper published by the Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence, the researchers calculated that there had been a fall of 1.3 million in the non-UK born population between July-September 2019 and July-September 2020. If correct, this would represent the largest fall in the UK resident population since World War II.

Regarding Central Europeans in particular, there were around 815,000 Polish-born citizens in the UK in 2020 compared with 1.021 million in 2017, when the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) registered the highest ever number of foreign residents from Poland. According to the ONS, that number fell by almost 100,000 between 2019 and 2020 alone.

The numbers of Central Europeans applying for settled status in the UK also suggest departures. According to data from the British Home Office, by the end of last year 58,750 Czechs had applied for settled status – even though estimates from the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs have around 100,000 Czechs living in the UK. Hungarians applying for settled status by the end of 2020 numbered 131,120 compared with previous estimates of 200,000 living in the UK.

The return of so many young, educated, experienced and, in some cases, wealthy people should prove a boost for the economies and demographics of Central Europe, effectively reversing some of the brain drain and ageing of the populations that these countries suffered over the last decade and a half. Yet while many of these returnees are glad to be home, near family and enjoying countries that have developed rapidly over the years, the COVID-afflicted economies, ugly politics and lack of opportunities are making the homecoming less sweet, which is leading some to consider leaving again.

Reasons for returning
For Eva Pavelkova and others like Dr Zdenek Klezl, Brexit was the push that propelled them home.

Dr Klezl decamped to Derby, a small city in the British Midlands, in 2005 after finding his career path blocked by the apparatchiks that still clung on in the Czech health sector. “I couldn’t get the job I wanted [in the Czech Republic],” he tells BIRN. “The health system at that time was still run by the old guys from the regime.”

Dr Klezl spent the next 15 years leading the spinal surgery unit at the Royal Derby Hospital and earning his professorship. Then came Brexit. Rueing that “many elements in the UK are now not what you would expect in a developed democracy”, the 63-year-old Klezl and his wife – also a doctor – returned to Czechia in November.

Andrzej Kubisiak, deputy director of the Polish Economic Institute and an expert on labour migration, definitely attributes some of the Polish migration out of the UK to Brexit, because no other Western European country has seen such a large outflow of Polish migrants in the last couple of years. “Since most Poles returning in the last years came from the UK, I can’t imagine Brexit is irrelevant,” Kubisiak tells BIRN.

However, he and other experts stress that migrants usually quote personal reasons for coming back rather than political ones, which points to the move being less permanent than might be expected.

Poles speaking about their decision to leave the UK in vlogs, for example, usually cite wanting to put their kids in Polish schools, being close to their elderly parents, or wanting to “get more from life” than making money. Rather than being the primary reason, the insecurity brought about by Brexit may have merely accentuated already existing tendencies, Kubisiak reckons.

“We missed the warmth of family and loved ones, but also the feeling of ‘living like in Poland’; that is, not feeling foreign,” says Marta, one of the vloggers, who returned to Poland in 2020 after 10 years in the UK.

Hungarians also don’t appear to be returning in massive numbers as a consequence of Brexit, but rather due to COVID-19, fleeing the severe lockdown measures in the UK and to take advantage of the lower cost of living in Hungary while riding out the pandemic. “I have returned temporarily, basically due to the COVID-19 crisis, but as soon as things get back to normal, I am off again,” Csaba Serak, an HR specialist, tells BIRN.

Serak had been living in the UK since the end of 2018, working first as a personal trainer and then as an operations manager. He has already obtained pre-settled status, allowing him to stay in the UK for another five years. Later, he can apply for settled status. “I have a good job in Hungary, I own a flat and living costs are definitely much lower here. During winter, everyday life was not so much restricted due to the virus in Hungary; you could still go for a walk, the shops were open – this made a difference. But the political climate does not make Hungary very attractive, so I will return as soon as the COVID crisis is over,” he explains.

Soft and hard landings
The situation that these returnees are finding on their return is certainly a good deal different from when many left – some of it good, some of it bad.

When Dr Klezl returned to the Czech Republic, he found the apparatchiks in the health sector gone and his expertise widely valued, meaning he quickly secured a senior consulting position at Prague’s biggest hospital Motol, where he is now training a new generation of specialist surgeons.

Others travelling the same path home are finding a similarly soft landing. While 2004 opened the gates to Europe, it also helped put Czechia on a rapid road to catch up. The statistics illustrate the huge strides made over the past decade and a half. Czech GDP stood at just 69 per cent of the EU average in 2003, according to Eurostat. By 2019 it had reached 93 per cent, not far behind the UK’s 104 per cent. Unemployment in Czechia has been the lowest in the bloc for years and, despite the pandemic, still stands at around 3 per cent.

Eva Pavelkova says she was worried about giving up her career at a Manchester animal hospital to take her chances back in her homeland, but has been reassured since she has been back. Seeing the prosperity, she’s now setting up her own business as a mobile veterinary cardiologist – a service common in the UK but yet to be introduced in Czechia. She laughs as she reports that even the infamous Czech bureaucracy has proved less Kafkaesque than feared, and easier to navigate than the UK version.

However, one cannot live on economics alone, and both Pavelkova and Klezl express delight to have discovered that life in their home country is more relaxed and easier than they had imagined. That shouldn’t come as too much of a shock. The OECD’s Better Life Index shows Czechia now performs above average on several indicators including education, personal security and social connections.

“Many Czechs think that living somewhere like the UK is better, but I’ve been very pleasantly surprised,” Klezl says. “Transport, healthcare, services and the standard of living are better than in the UK. The Czech Republic is now a very good place to live.”

However, for Hungarians like Serak, who is in a same-sex relationship, the nationalist-populist government’s increasingly hostile approach towards minorities like the LGBT community is alarming. He also says the UK government has gone to great lengths to convince people with skills to stay, and despite all the negative propaganda during Brexit, British society realises it needs foreign workers, both in blue and in white collar jobs. “I think the UK remains attractive for many workers and the hostility in the countryside has also diminished,” he says.

The economic situation at home is certainly not as rosy as it might have been without COVID-19. For this reason, Vladimir Balaz, an economist at the Slovak Academy of Sciences, told the Pravda daily that he does not expect a mass return of Slovak expats from the UK.

“All those who wanted to return have already done so,” he said, adding that many have applied for UK citizenship or permanent residence and would only come back if the local economic situation gravely deteriorated. “It’s mostly younger Slovaks who live over there and if they decide to return after all, it’s primarily for reasons of starting a family, like women wanting to give birth at home.”

Slovakia’s unemployment rate reached 8.5 per cent in January, after increasing steadily since November. But what worries economists most is the growing group of people who are ready to start working but unable to find a job. They make up 7.8 per cent of the total workforce, the most since March 2017.

With car manufacturing the backbone of the Slovak economy and automobiles representing the country’s leading export article to the UK, Deloitte calculated that Brexit could cause car manufacturers to lose 53 million euros in sales each year. Retail, transport, IT services and even academia are bound to take a sizeable hit, too, which could cost jobs in regions that are most reliant on car and electronics production clustered in western Slovakia, a study commissioned by the European Committee of the Regions shows.

Beyond slogans
Experts say that if the governments of the region want these returnees to stay and more of them to follow, then they need to do more.

Both the Polish and Hungarian governments have in the past tried to tempt back their citizens. When the Law and Justice (PiS) government came to power in 2015, it was able to argue to Poles living abroad that conditions in their home country were good enough for them to return. In early 2019, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki famously said during an interview with the BBC, “give us our people back”.

The Hungarian government has tried to lure back people from Western Europe twice in the last five years, but both efforts failed miserably. A well-advertised government program with a budget of 100 million forints (280,000 euros) in 2015 – “Come home, youngster!” – managed to tempt back just 105 people and was shut down after a year. In 2016, the government came up with the “Make business at home” slogan, and promised a 3-million-forint non-returnable grant for people under 25, but take-up again was underwhelming.

Beyond boasting about GDP growth rates and unemployment numbers, the Polish government seems to have done little to support the Poles who have decided to come back, Kubisiak observes. “The government should treat the Poles coming back as it does international investors,” Kubisiak says. “It should make them a special offer so that they want to come back and stay, for example, tax benefits.”

“We had a similar phenomenon back in 2008, when Poles returned from Ireland on the back of the financial crisis. This is a little wave of returns. If the government wants it to turn it into something bigger, it needs to offer more support,” he argues.

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