When taking on a public interview with Global Atlanta shortly into his tenure, new British Consul General Andrew Staunton couldn’t have known the Brexit tumult that would unfold over the ensuing months.
But the Glasgow, Scotland-born U.K. diplomat make one obvious pronouncement that has proven especially true over the last few weeks:
“We’re breaking new ground here. Divorce is never straightforward,” he said in an August Consular Conversation at Miller & Martin PLLC.
Indeed. Since then, the Conservative-led government’s plan to extricate the U.K. from the European Union has encountered a variety of setbacks. Facing an almost certain defeat, Prime Minister Theresa May last week delayed a vote in parliament on the Brexit agreement reached with the European Council in October. This week, she survived a no-confidence vote from her own party and vowed to seek changes at the EU.
But step back, and the priorities aren’t very different from the way Mr. Staunton laid them out way back in August.
Relations with Ireland remain a top priority, especially the government’s goal of leaving the EU while avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Irish republic.
And in terms of the consulate’s work — the main subject of the interview — the marching orders are much the same: build for the future of trade and investment across the pond with a post-Brexit world in view.
“It’s a challenge of generation,” Mr. Staunton told an audience of about 60 people. “We have domestically the biggest thing confronting the United Kingdom since the early 1950s, which is our decision to leave the European Union. We can’t look inwardly; we need to become that global Britain that politicians talk about, but that business will help deliver.”
Mr. Staunton inherited an Atlanta consulate that had ramped up to 19 staffers, about half of them involved in trade and investment, including a prosperity officer installed in Raleigh, N.C., in early 2017.
That shows how the U.K. is prioritizing the U.S. Reaching a free-trade deal, the eventual goal, will require grassroots support, Mr. Staunton said.
“That debate can happen in Washington, but it’ll only really make sense if we can make that case for that across the U.S., including Southeast states,” Mr. Staunton said.
On the flip side, the consulate’s “advocacy role” means that it must spread the gospel of how the U.K.’s economy is evolving.
The U.K.’s Northern Powerhouse initiative aims to link English cities like Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle with infrastructure and awareness, presenting opportunities for Southern investors. And cities like Belfast in Northern Ireland, Cardiff in Wales and Edinburgh in Scotland are also looking to Atlanta and the South, Mr. Staunton learned in a tour around the U.K. before taking up his new post.
“We’re breaking new ground here. Divorce is never straightforward.” -Andrew Staunton
“It gave me a passion for what’s happening in the United Kingdom, a pride in what’s happened, but also a sense of opportunity,” he said.
He saw that cities are becoming forces for innovation, and that the U.K. economy is being remade into one that is increasingly complementary with the South. Both are advanced manufacturing hubs with supportive governments and a private sector that is increasingly partnering with institutes of higher education. When it comes to Atlanta, some pairings are obvious: financial technology, film and entertainment and education.
Mr. Staunton, who had spent time in both Greece and Ireland at critical points in their sometimes-fraught relationships with the EU before coming to Atlanta, has seen his dreams of an engaged life fulfilled since joining the foreign service.
His first posting was in Beijing at just 21 years old, just before the Tiananmen Square incident.
“It was only really when I got to China and experienced what at China at that time was going through, that I understand that I had a front seat to this window to the world,” he said, noting that China was also memorable because it’s where he met his wife.
Being Scottish has helped in the art of diplomacy.
“The stereotype of a British diplomat would be someone who went to Eaton, Oxford and Cambridge, so I think having that sort of Glaswegian sense of being an extravert certainly helps as you go around the world and meet people,” he said. “The life of a diplomat is connecting with people, engaging and then having the ability to represent back to your capital.”
Even just a month into his term, he had already visited multiple cities in his six-state region, taking advantage of the slow summer period to lay the groundwork for future ties.
In one of many recent engagements, he offered a toast to President Donald Trump to fulfill tradition at the British-American Business Council of Georgia’s annual Christmas lunch. Just before that, he offered a note of tribute to the late President George H.W. Bush and the ideals of civility he represented.