Second’s best

9th March 2017

Arguments are raging over whether the UK’s position as a viable base for multi-national manufacturers has been weakened by the prospect of its exit from the European Union.

What is certain is that this is merely the prelude to a more awkward period in European history. We will see Madrid, Paris, Rome, Berlin, London and more capitals pitching against each other, as the clash between globalisation and isolationist conservatism showers sparks across Europe.

But – to take two examples – Rome is not Italy, and London is not the UK.

Leaving politics to one side, the Italian north is a very different country to Rome’s politicised centre and the predominantly rural south. Dominated by Milan, the region forms a more natural part of the economic powerhouse of regions that sits at the geographical centre of Europe. And, while no one would wish the spirit of Garibaldi away, the Italian system of government is highly decentralised and accords power to territorial units beneath state level.

It is often joked – only half in jest – that Manchester is the true capital of the United Kingdom. London has become a global city, almost a state in its own right, and the scale and cost of doing business in the capital has started to become prohibitive for some.

Manchester, for its part, retains its “northern edge” as the original modern city, built to serve as the engine room for the Industrial Revolution, where radical traditions saw its people prepared to die in the name of democracy and equal votes in the 19th century.

What Milan and Manchester both illustrate is the capacity for second cities to rise above the politicking of nation states and capital cities, and to walk tall on a world stage.

It is not for nothing that both are blessed with not one but two world class football clubs, each of which attracts the cream of the talent of world soccer to grace their northern turfs.

Similarly, in Milan’s Teatro alla Scala and Manchester’s Hallé orchestra, the cities respectively host a world-class opera house and a globally-respected symphony orchestra.

(Extending the comparison to the preferred foods of the two conurbations may stretch the point a little too far, given the gulf between salami Milano and Bury’s black pudding. To each their own…)

This potential of the second cities to continue to create common links, and social, political and cultural relationships across the continent has not been missed, and many are already preparing to take stock of a new reality in which “city states” rise above their host nations and enter into productive dialogue and exchange with each other.

That is good news for the future of the peoples of Europe.

In the UK, for example, the Local Government Association participates in a variety of platforms and organisations, bringing together sub-national governments across Europe and further afield.

Meanwhile, the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) represents the interests of European local authorities and their associations in more than 40 countries, promoting citizenship and exchange between elected representatives.

It is currently running programmes covering issues as diverse as regeneration and the migrant crisis, reminding us that it is more often than not local authorities on the ground that are relied upon by national governments to deal with the nitty-gritty of the challenges we face on a daily basis.

We should expect to see more from our second cities across Europe in the coming months and years, and we do not limit that to the UK and Italy.

Communications professionals, business and organisations will need to be ready to adapt to that change in momentum and a swing in the balance of power.

Second cities will often act as hosts to influential creative communities, provide valuable and cost-effective investment locations, and be more reflective of a country as it really is, versus the often high-octane and unrepresentative mood of Europe’s capitals. They also often provide a better quality of life.

As Europe seems to move apart, we may indeed see it come closer together through the medium of its great second cities, and we should all welcome that.