Gov. Rick Snyder said Wednesday he’s encouraged by discussions with European business leaders about the prospects of getting new foreign investment in Michigan’s auto industry, particularly in the burgeoning field of autonomous vehicles.

Snyder said he’s using a seven-day European trade mission to promote the ongoing development of a hub for testing and development of autonomous cars in Willow Run as well as the proving grounds for driverless vehicles that the University of Michigan opened last summer.

European businesses “ see real value in being nearby; proximity is important in a number of these industries to your customer and suppliers and in terms of the research that’s going on in the field,” Snyder said Wednesday in a telephone interview with The Detroit News. “A lot of people weren’t aware … of our leadership in intelligent vehicles.”

Snyder was in Zurich, Switzerland, on Wednesday to tour an industrial training center called Libs, followed by meetings with other business contacts. He left Saturday for the long-planned European trade mission and spent Monday attending the world’s largest industrial technology trade show in Hannover, Germany.

The governor said he held 34 separate meetings Monday at the Hannover Messe trade fair with German companies considering expansion into the United States as well as businesses that already have large and small workforces in Michigan.

“It was a busy Monday,” Snyder told The News. “... These are strong opportunities to bring businesses to Michigan.”

Snyder’s week-long trip to Europe is his first overseas travel since declaring a state of emergency Jan. 5 in Flint’s lead-tainted water crisis.

Despite the international attention on high levels of lead in some parts of Flint’s water supply, Snyder said he has not fielded many questions about Flint.

“I had one (question) from a journalist,” Snyder said. “At those 34 meetings, that was about the only question that I had directly about what’s going on. The rest was about Michigan and actually positive comments about Detroit.”

This differs from his previous overseas trade missions, when Detroit and its 2013-2014 bankruptcy dominated the interest of foreign journalists, Snyder said.

“The transformation of Detroit has very much been a positive, and (Europeans) see the importance of the U.S. marketplace,” he said.

Snyder also said he’s pitching Flint to European business leaders as a place to set up shop in Michigan.

The economically depressed city of 99,000 residents has half as many residents as it did 50 years ago when General Motors employed thousands of more people at auto plants that have since been shuttered and demolished.

“There could be good opportunities because of opportunities for being in the supply base, the land available, the fact that there are people wanting to go to work and have good career opportunities,” Snyder said of Flint.

The governor is headed to Italy on Thursday for a meeting with officials from a cluster of automotive supplier companies.

Snyder said existing foreign-owned companies operating in Michigan are the state’s “best marketing (tool) to get others to come.”

“They want to go where there’s a good supply of people that are excited to work in these professions, in these skilled trades areas,” he said.

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Twitter: @ChadLivengood

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