Brum marches to a happier tune

BUILDING EUROPE: In the last of our European profiles John Lichfield visits a most continental city: Birmingham
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We are standing in one of the pleasantest squares in Europe, dominated by an impressive, gold-leaf-encrusted Hotel de Ville. There is a large waterfall-fountain with a recumbent post-modern statue of a huge, female bather. There is a flower stall on the corner, which is reminiscent of Amsterdam. There is a scattering of the ornate advertising pillars which are typical of French cities. There are tourists. There are pigeons.

Unfortunately, it is pouring with rain. But then what do you expect? This is Birmingham and it is March.

Victoria Square, created by removing part of New Street, is the epicentre of Birmingham's efforts over the past 12 years to re-invent itself - largely thanks to cash from the European Union. Nearby there is a pleasant mall with an atrium, the International Conference Centre, a classical concert hall and a canal-side park. Birmingham always had more canals than Venice but you were never previously advised to visit them.

Beyond - not far beyond, admittedly - you come back to the tangle of urban throughways and high-rises which squeezed the life out of Birmingham in the late 1960s. It is as if the city had set out to become Detroit, changed its mind and decided to become Lille or Liege or Turin instead.

"It was absolutely a conscious decision, absolutely, to go for the European look," said Tony Bradley, Director of Business Policy at the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "The City council wanted it to look European and they were quite right because Europe is our future. Birmingham is at the centre of one of the great city-regions of Europe and that is the way we feel Europe will go. It will increasingly be dominated, not by nations, but by city-regions."

This article comes at the end of a series in which the Independent attempts to look into the future of the European Union, not from the standard vantage point of national capitals, but from the perspective of its regions: Bordeaux, Bologna, Bavaria and now Birmingham. In Turin next Friday EU heads of government will launch a year-long Inter-governmental Conference (IGC) which will try to plot the shape of the European Union for the next century. The received view is that the negotiations will once again see the pro-Europe continental member states and Ireland teaming up against Britain, the perpetually reluctant European.

This may well be so. But our forays into the regions suggest that public opinion - at least, informed business and political opinion - no longer fits either of these traditional moulds. On the continent, post-Maastricht, there is a growing questioning of the purpose and direction; in Britain, outside the fetid atmosphere of Westminster, there remains great scepticism and uncertainty but also a conviction that Britain's place is in Europe.

David Maxwell is Chief Executive of Birmingham City 2000, a pressure group seeking to bolster the city's growing reputation as an international services centre. He says the West Midlands was traditionally an inward- looking region, a metal-bashing manufacturer of hardware for Britain and its Empire, with little direct contact with the continent. "We have emerged from the Eighties with much of that industry gone. But that which remains - and the financial service industries which have grown up here - are absolutely committed to the idea of Birmingham, and Britain, as part of European single market.

"There is great suspicion about the idea of more European political integration. Most people can't see the need for it. On the single currency, business here is very divided. But there is also, I think, great unease that the British Government seems always to place Britain on the edge of the debate."

In Victoria Square, I tried for a wider cross-section of Birmingham opinion. In 20 minutes, before the rain destroyed my notebook, I spoke to a dozen or so passers-by. Not one of them was aware of next week's conference; only one person was vaguely aware that the EU had invested pounds 200m in the revival of their city since 1984; all spoke with varying degrees of indifference - but no especial hostility - of the future of the European Union.

Of all the people I met more formally in Birmingham, the one who best summed up the ambivalence of British attitudes was Christopher Spall, senior partner of Barker, Brettell and Duncan, a large firm of patent and trade-mark attorneys. Mr Spall says he has "very strong views" about the EU. "I am strongly against any further bureaucracy and any further political integration. I am strongly against the single currency . . . I saw Chancellor Kohl on the TV the other night, raving on about federalism. Honestly, all he needed was the small moustache . . ."

Mr Spall grinned impishly. On the other hand, he points out that his firm - once entirely dependent on winning UK patents for local manufacturing businesses - now depends for its survival on British membership of the EU. One-third of its work is European: acting for British companies who want a European patent, but also for American and Japanese companies who want both British and European patents.

"When they opened the European Patents office in Munich, I feared the worst, he said. "I thought, here we go, European rules and German officialdom. But it hasn't been like that. It works very sensitively and efficiently. We get on with the Germans very well."

Municipally, Birmingham takes its new-found European-ness very seriously. It was one of the five founding members of Euro-city, an urban pressure group which now unites more than 60 EU cities. The city council was one of the first in Britain to have its own representation in Brussels. Birmingham has worked aggressively and intelligently to win EU regional fund grants. "Brussels was ready to entertain, and actively support, regeneration projects . . . while they were still out of favour in Whitehall," said Gareth Williams, the city's director of European and International Affairs.

But Mr Williams says that Birmingham has found Europe just as invigorating as a habit of mind. "Within Britain, Birmingham will always be Birmingham, the second city. In Europe, we take our place quite naturally in the first tier of big, provincial cities. There is a lot we can learn; there is a lot we can teach. It gives us . . . a network, and a network which doesn't go through London."

Habit of mind is an important European issue. Mr Williams believes Europe is also a generational issue: younger generations are, he says, much more open to the idea of a European Britain. Maybe.

On the train to Birmingham, I met a young Brummie in his 20s, a Sun reader, a van driver out of work because he had lost his driving licence. He cared nothing about European politics. But he was on his way home from the Netherlands, where he had been to register for work.

"I've been there before," he said. "I'm going to get work in the bulb harvest, mate. There's nothing happening in Birmingham. There's nothing happening in this country. They know how to live over there."