Before the invasion by the armies of the Warsaw Pact in August 1968, the leadership of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (KSC), grouped around the liberal Alexander Dubcek, tried to push for some bold reforms that would significantly challenge the status quo at the time.

The citizens of Czechoslovakia were promised freedoms that would lead to a partial decentralization of the country from the Soviet Union. The new rights included a loosening restriction on the media, speech, and most significantly on travel (which could lead to opening up the tight boarders with West Germany).

Perhaps it was the last of the three freedoms that spooked the Soviet leadership in Moscow, that prompted the secretly orchestrated, sudden and unexpected invasion of Czechoslovakia by the armies of a military alliance, of which the invaded country was itself a member. Although no one could have envisaged that over 200,000 soldiers, with tanks and other military equipment, would flood the streets of Prague to end (and reverse) the period of reforms that would later come to be known as the “Prague Spring of 68”, in hindsight, one could ask whether Dubcek’s attempts at modernizing the country were rational and worthy. Paraphrasing a quote published by a newspaper some time ago as an answer to this question: “Vision can bring you to heaven or hell. But surely only life with vision is worth living, whereas life without one is merely surviving”.

It was perhaps during the bitter period following the summer of 1968 when a new verb appeared in the Czech language: “vycestovat” [vi-tse-sto-vet]. It is difficult to translate it into English, but it could be understood as a cross between “escape”, “break free” and “travel abroad”. Growing up as a child (fortunate enough to have been born only 4 years before the Iron Curtain fell), I can still distinctly remember conversations that my grandma used to have with friends or family members, where she would describe someone as being “highly successful”, only because the person managed to “vycestovat”: move to the west, ideally Germany, the UK or the US, before victoriously returning home.

I cannot speak for those in all eastern European countries, but certainly in the Czech Republic, it is still perceived today as a form of success to reach fluency in the English, French or the German language, and to spend some time “in the west,” the society which the generation of today’s 30-year olds have learned to admire since childhood.

Combine that with the fact that history lessons in Czech high schools tend to focus quite heavily on the two world wars and the heroism of the British resistance, the battle of Britain (in which some Czechoslovak pilots took part) or the assassination of Reinhard Heidrich: an action carried out by Czechoslovak officers who had escaped to Britain, only to be trained by the SAS to be parachuted back into their homeland to carry out one of the most remarkable secret operations of World War two. Couple that with the general perception of Britain, which is that of Sherlock Holmes, tweed jackets, gentlemanly lords or the famous dry humour, and it is not too difficult to understand why so many would fall in love with the idea of “experiencing life on the islands”.

Having said that, and having lived here since 2003, even I have been somewhat taken aback by the huge and gradual influx of Eastern European citizens into the UK, which I have observed with interest and a certain degree of curiosity. I have examined various individual cases: from Cambridge-educated bankers, to IT experts, to waiters to cafe baristas. One case struck me in particular. An employee who works in a major coffee chain, travels daily from Upton Park to Canary Wharf to open a cafe at 6am (so has to be there at around 5am, getting up at 4am), often works ten hour shifts, and still serves you a coffee with a genuine smile. To my question “what makes you so happy”, the employee answered “well, at least I am here, improving my English, advancing”.

And then it occurred to me: for many of us, experiencing life in Britain had simply become our “vision”. Putting aside whether that vision has indeed brought us to “heaven” or “hell” (or whether it is the most rational vision in today’s economic environment), it is perhaps purely the notion of living it that creates a degree of satisfaction and content. Sarcasm aside: the simple truth is that so many of us have just taken advantage of the rules and the system that was put in place by the political elites in Europe, to realize what we felt was the best way to advance forward.

It is an interesting question whether the founders of the European Union ever envisaged an internal mass migration of this kind. As a biased observer with self-interest, I should strongly favour the four freedoms on which the European Union has been built: the free movement of capital, goods, services and persons. And I do, but even I feel that some of the changes that I have witnessed over the past 14 years have happened too fast, in a disorganized manner, and perhaps with unintended consequences.

As an example, is it really entirely normal, that over the space of one decade, Eastern European languages have now become more frequently spoken on some parts of the London public transport than English? (Just take a ride on the DLR from Canning Town to Beckton). And what about the notoriously known and debated issue of transferring child benefits? Whilst the advantages of free trade and even the free movement of labour are well known, there does not exist even a theoretical economic argument that would make the transferring of child benefits rational.

An interesting point about the latter issue is that with a high degree of certainty, the vast majority of Czechs – for example – would never agree to spend their taxes on funding benefits for immigrants’ children who happen to live overseas, neither would they find it appropriate to demand that such policy be implemented in other countries.

It is also interesting to note that the Czech prime minister, who chaired the V4 group at the time when the issue was hotly contested just before the Brexit referendum, rather heavily advocated for the right of EU migrants to continue to claim these benefits (never mind the fact that virtually no Czechs actually claim these). His stance was quite astonishing, because it was completely out of line with the domestic public opinion, and what was further shocking was the fact that Czech mainstream media absolutely failed to inform about this embarrassing foreign policy posture. Later on, I found an interview with the prime minister (hidden at the back page of a newspaper) where he explained that the point wasn’t really the right to child benefits at stake. He wanted to demonstrate that Eastern European countries would not easily give way under pressure.

It is exactly these sort of elaborate and incomprehensible political games that have taken us to where we are today. The political elites in Europe have absolutely failed to listen to or even perceive the issues that “regular people” consider important, and instead, have been swallowed by a world of political – or yet worse – personal ambitions.

All of us together have only had one chance to get the European project right, and with Brexit, no politician can possibly claim that we have succeeded. Perhaps, the dogmatic “ever closer union” has been served too vigorously and not with enough consideration. Why forcefully aim to achieve a fully unified Europe within the span of one’s political career, when it’s taken us a thousand years of convoluted warfare and complicated international affairs just to take a seat at the negotiating table?

Brexit is not the result of millions of individuals taking a personal decision to move from one country to another, whilst fully complying with the rules, laws and the regulations that had been put in place. Neither should Brexit be seen as the result of a vote expressed by a proportion of the British public, who might have felt uncomfortable with such a large migration wave. Rather, Brexit is the result of toxic political contests and the personal goals of various political leaders who were aiming to achieve too much over too short a period of time, with little or no regard for anything else.

If I had one wish, it would be to wake up in a world where Brexit is recalled or has never happened and where instead, European leaders agree to take the foot off the unification pedal and start focusing on the issues that the general public in the majority of European countries consider pressing.

While that might not be possible, it would at least be great to see the Brexit negotiations lead to as close a relationship between what’s left of the EU and the UK as possible: a relationship which, as a start, is based on frictionless trade and a pragmatic cooperation across key sectors such as security or nuclear power.

As a matter of fact, the UK is the fourth largest export partner to the Czech Republic (which in turn bases over 80% of its GDP on exports). Should free trade stall, I wonder how the EU negotiators pass the message on: “Yes, over 5% of your export market has just disappeared, and your national GDP is likely to be affected, but hold on, the good news is that as a result, the other side, the British are even worse off”. Let’s all genuinely hope that there’s some common sense left in the political circles on both sides of the channel.