Merkel Saves Opel From GM's Fate

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WOLFGANG RATTAY / Reuters / Corbis


Thousands of Opel workers in Germany are breathing a huge sigh of relief after the last-minute deal to rescue GM's European operations. German unions had always supported Austrian-Canadian company Magna International's takeover of GM Europe, wary that the rival bid from Fiat was just an attempt, as one union official put it, to "pinch German engineering." The unions regard Magna as an innovative company that put forward the best plan to secure the long-term future of Opel. At the carmaker's headquarters in the town of Rüsselsheim near Frankfurt, workers were hugging friends and colleagues outside the factory on Saturday when news of the deal broke. Many were surprised the German government finally stepped in to save the traditional carmaker Opel in the nick of time, just before its parent company, the U.S. car giant, GM, went under.

"We're so relieved that at the last minute Opel and GM Europe were ring-fenced from the Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the U.S.," Klaus Franz, the head of Opel's works council tells TIME. "Of course I'm also worried about my U.S. friends, but I'm happy the bridge financing plan for Opel has worked out and all GM's European assets have been guaranteed," he says. But despite the German relief, major sacrifices among GM Europe's 55,000 workforce are unavoidable in the coming months. (See pictures of General Motors Factory-scapes.)

After marathon talks on Friday night, the German government approved plans by the Austrian-Canadian car-parts manufacturer Magna to take over GM's European business. Under the deal, Opel will be placed in a trust and the German government will provide a bridging loan of $2.1 billion (€1.5 billion) to provide Opel with emergency funding and keep GM's European operations running. On top of that, the German government will give $4.3 billion (€3 billion) in loan guarantees. The Canadian firm would own 20% of the new group, Russia's biggest lender Sberbank would have a 35% stake, GM would keep a 35% stake in its European arm, and Opel workers would have 10%. (See pictures of the dangers of printing money in Germany.)

The deal, which prevents German taxpayers' money from disappearing into the GM's all but empty coffers in the U.S., was a lifeline few Germans had expected. In the past, Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative CDU party has steered clear of state intervention in the economy. But as the global downturn took its toll on German firms and the financial crisis brought a few major banks to its knees, Merkel has embarked on a big U-turn. First, there was the bail-out of the property lender Hypo Real Estate, then the part-nationalization of Germany's second biggest bank, Commerzbank. And don't forget the two fiscal stimulus packages (amounting to $116 billion (€82 billion over 2 years) aimed at kickstarting Europe's biggest economy. Throw in the fact that a federal election is coming up in September, and it becomes clear that Merkel doesn't want to go down in the history books as the Chancellor who axed thousands of jobs at one of the country's oldest carmakers. The German Chancellor even brushed aside critics and dissenting voices within her own cabinet.

Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a conservative politician from Angela Merkel's sister CSU party, criticized the deal to save Opel and apparently threatened to resign on Friday night when he was over-ruled. Guttenberg, a rising star in Merkel's coalition government, controversially suggested Opel should go into an "orderly insolvency" and he accused the government of risking billions for a short-term solution. "There is the danger the state could be blackmailed if it is too generous with state help even on one occasion," Guttenberg told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday.

But in the end, the Chancellor got her way. On Saturday, a beaming Angela Merkel held a news conference in Berlin to announce the breakthrough. There was no hiding her delight, and relief. "The deal is a real chance for Opel workers," Angela Merkel said. "The workers aren't responsible for this crisis. The mismanagement at GM in the U.S. was to blame," she said. (Read about Merkel in the TIME 100.)

Merkel revealed that she called President Barack Obama on Friday just before the final round of talks started and that this call helped swing the deal. "Because of the special (GM/Opel) structure, the talks were a real test of transatlantic relations," Merkel said.

But workers at GM plants across Europe are in the dark over what the plans mean for them in the future. Opel employs around 26,000 workers in Germany, almost half of GM Europe's total workforce of 55,000. With Germany in the driving seat during the negotiations, politicians and trade unions in other European countries are concerned the new investor Magna, along with its Russian partners, will protect German jobs at the expense of other jobs. "There are going to be more tough negotiations with GM Europe and Magna," says Klaus Franz, the head of Opel's works council. "A very stony road lies ahead of us. Jobs will be cut, but we hope we can prevent forced redundancies and plant closures," he says. (See the 50 worst cars of all time.)

Apart from Germany, GM Europe has factories in Belgium, Spain, Poland and Britain. It's not clear whether Magna will shut down the two Vauxhall factories in Luton and Ellesmere Port in the U.K., which employ 5,000 workers. The British Business Secretary Lord Mandelson grumbled that Magna had been "vague about their job and business plans." There are also questions over the robustness of Magna, which has been hit hard by the global downturn. Magna said during the negotiations it would cut 10,000 jobs across Europe, with the axe falling on around 2,500 jobs in Germany, but Magna pledged to keep the four German Opel factories open. The Opel factory in the city of Bochum could be the worst hit, with 1800 jobs under threat. "There'll be restructuring and that's inevitable because we have overcapacity in Europe," Jörg Schrott, the spokesman for Opel and GM Europe tells TIME. "The overcapacity must be adjusted, but restructuring doesn't automatically mean job losses." (See pictures of Detroit's decline.)

German union leaders insist other European countries will play a role in future negotiations with Magna over the restructuring. "We need a pan-European solution and I'm sure other European countries will come up with loan guarantees in the future when the new group under Magna is reshaped," says Klaus Franz. But it could be months before GM's workers in Europe find out what its new owners have in store for them.

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