Libor Secka, the Czech Ambassador to London, has a serious case of wanderlust. He attributes this to growing up in Znojmo, a “border city” where Vienna was closer than Prague and many cultures passed through the South Moravian gateway.
Ambassador dreamt of being a sailor but instead he settled for a career in diplomacy, heading to Moscow’s MGIMO to study international economic relations at the dawn of the Gorbachev era. “Paradoxically, in Moscow at that time the winds of freedom felt stronger than in my country,” reflects the Ambassador.
Returning to the European department in Prague, soon the winds of change swept through Czechoslovakia, ending in the Velvet Revolution and then the Velvet Divorce.
“Everything changed at the foreign ministry,” recalls Secka. Prague set a course for the Euro-Atlantic organisations and so EU affairs have been a recurring theme in his career. He was in the Czech Republic’s delegation to negotiate accession (1997-99), later becoming Ambassador to the European Union from 2000-2002 and finally Director General of the European Section at the Ministry.
He also satisfied his wanderlust, criss-crossing the globe with postings in Spain (1990-05), and then as Ambassador to Mexico (1999-2000), Italy and Malta (2003-06) and China (2009-15). In each, he took pleasure in getting to understand cultures different to his own. “I like to find the soul of a new place,” he smiles.
Now in London, the Ambassador is keen to add value to the long-standing Czech-British ties that stretch back to Anne of Bohemia who won the heart of Richard II and his kingdom.
Fast-forward 600 years to 1915 when Britain gave refuge to the Czechoslovak founding father Tomas Masaryk and supported his aspirations for an independent state. Czech pilots fought alongside the RAF in WWII and the British opened their homes to the Jewish child refugees who came over on the Kindertransport. In 1968, Britain was a supporter of the short-lived Prague Spring and later encouraged the Czech Republic’s accession to the EU.
“We have a lot of history and a lot of symbols but I would like to use them to shift relations from the past to the present and future,” says Secka.
The Ambassador has ambitious plans for 2018, using the milestones of the Czech centenary and the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring to create a programme of events that will cast this relationship in a contemporary light – quite literally.
The anniversaries will coincide with the reopening of the Czech Embassy, which is itself celebrating its 50th birthday in 1968. The Ambassador plans to stage a lightshow on the building’s façade.
“We have to use these moments as an opportunity and to present the Czech Republic as a modern and interesting partner for the UK,” says Secka.
Partnerships in education, science and technology are of particular interest. Czech institutions produce ground-breaking research in a number of areas such as biotech, nano-technology and renewable technology. “I want to find British partners to create industrial or commercial applications for this research,” explains the Ambassador.
The two countries also have strong healthcare sectors, with the Czech Republic fast becoming a destination for so-called ‘health tourism’.
There is also scope for cooperation in energy. Both countries use nuclear energy and both are seeking to build new nuclear plants with the help of Chinese investors, an area where the Ambassador’s Chinese experience will prove helpful.
Secka also wants to use the centenary celebrations as a focal point for Czech culture – from literature, to art, film, architecture and of course music, where the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra is a popular fixture in London’s concert halls.
Strengthening people-to-people ties is another priority for the Ambassador. Prague is already popular destination for Brits but he wants to encourage them further afield to places like his hometown with its catacombs, castles and excellent wine. He also wants to find more British cities to twin with Czech cities.
The Czech diaspora in the UK – from footballers to writers, policemen and legendary bartenders – are all unofficial ambassadors, says Secka, and form a dynamic cultural bridge between two nations. Since accession this community has swelled to around 100,000 making the Ambassador something of a ‘mayor’ of a large, dispersed Czech ‘town’.
Balance of power
But the newcomers in this community are feeling “uncertainty” over their future status in Britain with the upcoming UK referendum on EU membership, says Secka is monitoring the debate closely.
From the Czech perspective the EU has brought peace and stability to the European continent. “We are not protected by the sea – on the one side we are close to Germany and on the other we are close to Russia and we have many times been in the centre of battlefield.”
And the UK is important to that stability, he adds: “Having the UK in the EU is also important for the balance of power.”
But eager to understand Britain’s ambivalence to Europe, the Ambassador has invited arch eurosceptics to his residence for a lively lunch. It’s all part finding the elusive “British soul”, he says, a quest which he hopes will take him to pubs, football terraces, footpaths and golf courses across Britain.