The Honorable Karen Bell, Consul General of The United Kingdom
“There is no bilateral relationship anywhere on the planet that is more important than the one that exists between the US and the UK”
iF: First, tell us a bit about yourself and walk us through your background:
Honorable Karen Bell: I’m a career diplomat and this is the only kind of business I’ve ever been in. I’ve had previous postings counting backwards in Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Canada, India, and France. I‘m married with two grown up boys who are either studying or working in London. I’m here in Houston with my husband and our dog, Murray.
iF: What does a General Consul in your capacity do?
The Honorable Karen Bell: Well, it’s very varied. I was looking back across my diary for the last month just to give you a real-life snapshot into the kinds of things we do and last month we hosted a visit to Houston by our Ambassador to the United Nations, we have looked after delegations who have been in town for the Space Com Convention, Deisy (Head of Politics, Press and Public Affairs) and I have also co-chaired between us two days of scholarship interviews for a scholarship program we run here from the consulate. Then there are the usual things like speaking engagements; I gave a speech last week on all things antimicrobial resistant, which is a global health issue that the UK cares quite a lot about. Also, given the events of last month, we reported an analysis of the election results.
iF: Tell us about the Consulate General of the UK in Houston. What parts of America are covered by the consulate and what are the services it provides?
The Honorable Karen Bell: We cover a five-state area. Different people in the office have got different geographical responsibilities, but our core areas of geographical coverage are Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and New Mexico. The areas of work we are focused on broadly divide into three areas. One would be building the political and governmental relationship that we need in order to advance UK interests across the patch. Probably the biggest element of our work would be supporting what we describe loosely as UK prosperity interest, so some of that is about old-fashion trade and investment promotion and development. It is also about building science innovation partnerships. We have two people here working on science and innovation and we are also interested in policy dialogue where it helps us understand economic development here and in the UK.
The energy sector in particular is also quite important to us. There’s a bit of work which most people associate generally with consulates, which is looking after the interest of the very many Brits who happen to live near and around our patch. There are about 70,000 of them here in Texas and about 40,000 based around Houston. Fortunately for us, Brits are mostly a well behaved bunch so they don’t cause us trouble, but we provide services such as, emergency travel documents in the event that someone has lost their passport and then in a more serious case where a person may be arrested, we would do things like prison visits and that kind of thing. What we don’t do, which comes as a surprise to most people, is issue visas. We got out of that business some time ago, and it’s entirely an online process and is managed for us by a commercial partner.
iF: What are some past, present, and future goals for the UK’s relationship with Houston?
The Honorable Karen Bell: We want to grow and develop our trade and investment relationships even further and energy is the heart of the partnerships that we have with Houston. Increasingly our trade and investment agenda is also focused on the health and life sciences sector where we see a huge opportunity particularly with all the fantastic research and activity going on in the Texas Medical Center and opportunities around that. The Information, Communication, and Technology (ICT) sector is also very important to us. There are a lot of UK companies who have innovative products and services to offer in this market and we’re equally interested in working with tech companies based in and around our patch who might be looking to take their business international by investing in the UK, so we have people here who work to support those endeavors.
iF: What are some big picture issues facing the UK today?
The Honorable Karen Bell: Well, the obvious one is how we position the UK and take forward our international relationships in the wake of the outcome of the EU Referendum which took place on the 23rd of June. It was a massive democratic exercise, and we had a turnout of over 70%. 33 million Brits went to the polls to decide whether or not the UK should remain in the European Union, and as we all know, the decision that emerged from the referendum was that we should start the process of leaving. So a very big part in my role as Consul General and that of my colleagues around our diplomatic network is explaining exactly how the UK is and will continue to be a very strong global leader and partner particularly for the United States.
An awful lot of what we do now is not connected with our membership with the EU, so for instance, our membership with the UN, G7, G20, our NATO membership, we are the only country in the world that spends almost 2% of its GDP on defense and also meets our UN target to spend. 7% of our national income on oversea development assistance so all of that will continue but equally as we prepare to start the process for leaving the EU, we are excited by the opportunities of building even closer relationships with our partners outside the EU. We are not leaving Europe, we are leaving the European Union — so Europe will continue to be really important to us, but also we are excited for the opportunities to be an even more effective global partner particularly for the US. There is no bilateral relationship anywhere on the planet that is more important than the one that exists between the US and the UK.
“Special Relationship” celebrated its 70th birthday this year. The expression was first coined by Winston Churchill 70 years ago and a big part of what we are trying to do is make sure the Special Relationship remains special and relevant to a next generation of Brits and Americans. We do that in a variety of ways. Our Marshall scholarship program is one of them where we continue to invest in the brightest of US students who go on to pursue their post-graduate studies in the UK. We are also very excited about the opportunities to develop connections with the Hispanic community, particularly in this part of the world. We recognize that one of the great opportunities of having a consulate here in is that it gives us a window on what the American future might look like, and we’ve taken a strategic decision to engage with that and want to be a part of it. We want our relationship to be special for a generation of Americans who may not have the same family connections, as perhaps, the generation that went before them, and we want to continue to be the closest partner we can be for the US.
iF: What does Brexit mean for Americans traveling to Europe?
The Honorable Karen Bell: Well, most immediately it means that your dollar goes a lot further. The UK’s economy is in very, very robust shape and the IMF and numerous independent bodies have confirmed that. But you will notice that the pound did drop by a considerable margin against the dollar in the wake of the EU referendum. So that means for anyone who is thinking about doing some Holiday shopping, now is a great time to go. In terms of other practical implications, we can start with our commitment to the rules, being that we are still in the EU, and obligations to the EU membership continue until such time as we leave. The UK has always been and will continue to be a very good sort of corporate citizen in the EU. In practical terms too, as a traveler I doubt any Americans will tell a difference. We were never in the Schengen common travel area, so we’ve always had control over our own borders. In that sense nothing has changed, and we don’t expect anything to change in terms of the experience for a business or tourist traveler from the US.
iF: How is the UK’s business community positioning itself to help Americans who are interested in doing business in the UK?
The Honorable Karen Bell: Well, I can’t speak for the British business community as a whole, but what I can say is that more than half the staff at the consulate are members of a parent department called Department of International Trade and the Department of International Trade was established as a self-standing government department immediately after the EU referendum, and it’s elevated us to focus on the trade and investment relationships. It also means we now have a Secretary of State and foreign ministers who are exclusively focused on ensuring that we get the best from our trade and investment relationships. So, the US is absolutely an important priority for us. We have got a Secretary of State for Trade and four ministers; three of whom have been here to the US within two months of the department being set up, so we are aligning all of our political fire power behind growing and deepening our trade and investment relationships. The other thing I would say is that the Department of International Trade works in close partnership with a number of other organizations and presence here in Houston. For instance, the British American British Council (BABC), which is a member organization which exists to promote the interest of its member companies, are very active here to help create introductions and settling into the market for UK companies who want to grow their businesses here. We also work closely with Scottish Development International (SDI) who have an office in the Energy Corridor and also with the Energy Industries Council (EIC) who also have an office here in Houston. So, there are lots and lots of support for companies who are either looking to grow their pipeline of exports to the US from the UK or for companies based here in Houston who are looking to internationalize by investing in the UK. And of course we are always pleased to hear from any of them!