“The Slovaks have invited us to tea!” my British professor exclaimed in my diplomacy class. He instructed us to wear something nice and said that we’d walk over to the embassy together.
This is how, the next week, I found myself sauntering past nineteenth century mansions on the most expensive street in London.
“Oh look, the Romanian Embassy!” my professor pointed out. “Hey, the Lebanese Embassy!”
I was dressed in my best attempt at Meghan Markel fashion (it’s all about the sleek, structured pea coats) for our fancy class visit to the Slovak Embassy, passing Kensington Palace along the way and feeling like a posh Brit.
“How’d we get into this again?” I whispered to a friend from the class.
“I Twitter DM’d the Slovak ambassador,” she shrugged. “He’s a really active tweeter.”
Part of our assignment for my Diplomatic Studies class this semester in London is to engage with diplomats on social media to learn how they communicate with the public. Luckily, they invite students to tea over Twitter, too.
We arrived at the end of this street of cream-colored mansions to a squat, gray building of brutalist architecture reminiscent of the Cold War. Greeted by one of the embassy’s diplomats, we shuffled through a gate and into the modern, open lobby.
“Welcome, we’re so glad to have you here,” the diplomat said as he closed the embassy door behind us. He led us through a reception hall, past glass doors to the garden (“The Czech Embassy is on the other side—after the breakup of Czechoslovakia we have to pretend there’s an imaginary border there in the grass,” he laughed), and to a meeting room. Another diplomat shook our hands and introduced himself.
“Help yourself to tea and sandwiches.” They gestured to a table with a familiar British spread of scones, milk, and sugar. We were both flattered by their gesture and gracious for our thinning wallets — free tea in London? Unheard of!
Through sips of Earl Grey and slideshows of Slovak castles, we had a unique conversation with the Slovak diplomats about “public diplomacy” — social media use and how this small embassy of only several people engages with their people. The more fascinating conversation, however, was about the future of Slovakia in general. Slovakia is a wealthy but small, middle-European nation that has unfortunately made headlines in the last few weeks from sudden and major political unrest.
In the most tedious and diplomatic fashion possible, we tip-toed around those events occurring in Slovakia and discussed instead how the events happening in Britain affect them. What does Brexit mean for Slovakia? The diplomats shifted in their seats, not wanting to reveal too much about how much strain Britain’s exit from the EU puts on small European nations like them. One percent of the country’s entire population lives in Britain, and Slovak immigrant populations to the UK have increased 500% since Slovakia’s admittance to the EU in 2004. Should the Slovak Embassy encourage Britain’s 50,000 Slovak immigrants to move back home? That’s what they’re trying to do, at least, which will make their public diplomacy and engagement with young Slovaks through social media even more crucial.
As we left the embassy, we could hear the loud shouting of protesters from the other side of the Russian Embassy across the street. It was a stark reminder that although each mini-country on this beautiful road feels like its own bubble, they are all dealing with the very real fallout of an uncertain and anxious future for the European Union and diplomacy as they know it. The Slovak diplomats wondered aloud, where is Slovakia’s place in Britain now?
And the rest of the world is asking, where is Britain’s place in Europe?