Fiat's grand plans hit resistance

6th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has reportedly drawn up a 14-point list of criteria that any buyer of GM Europe has to fulfil before Berlin opens its chequebook.

Berlin -- A drive by Italy's Fiat to create a global car giant from the remnants of General Motors in Europe and Chrysler hit the skids on Tuesday as fierce resistance emerged on both sides of the Atlantic.

Unions expressed fears that Fiat head Sergio Marchionne would close plants and slash thousands of jobs if what he calls his "marriage made in heaven" to form the world's second-biggest automaker after Toyota becomes reality.

Marchionne told the German daily Bild that he would not close any factories in Germany, where GM Europe employs about half of its 56,000 European workers at Opel.

But he added: "Opel can never make money in its current size, and if you don't make money you won't survive.... The workforce of course has to be reduced. No one can change that."

"Statements like this are 10 a penny," Rainer Einenkel, head of the works council at Opel's Bochum plant in Germany, said on NDR public radio.

In Britain, the head the country's main carworkers' union Unite said he feared that Vauxhall -- part of GM Europe, employing over 5,000 workers in Britain -- could be "given away" if Marchionne got his way.

"Quite frankly this move sends shivers down my spine. These proposals are not so much a sale as a giveaway," Unite joint general secretary Tony Woodley said.

Unions were unhappy too in Italy, where Fiat is by far the country's biggest private sector employer, paying the wages of more than 82,000 people including 30,000 in its auto division at five assembly plants.

Fresh from securing a 20-percent stake in the bankrupt Chrysler last week, Marchionne also has his eye on snapping up GM's European business to create a new giant making between six and seven million vehicles every year.

GM is expected by analysts to follow fellow Detroit "Big Three" behemoth Chrysler into bankruptcy soon and has been trying to offload some of its European operations, based on Opel and Vauxhall, for some time.

Industry sources told AFP on Tuesday that Fiat is also looking at snapping up GM's operations in Latin America where the US firm sold 1.2 million vehicles last year.

On Monday a smiling Marchionne was in Berlin touting his plans to ministers in the hope that the German government would help the takeover become reality with state guarantees that one newspaper defined as a "dowry."

German ministers were somewhat sceptical too, with Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg saying that although Fiat's plans were "interesting" he needed more details and that there were other interested parties.

Hendrik Hering, economy minister in the state Rhineland-Palatinate where Opel employs 3,000 people at an engine factory that might not form part of Marchionne's vision, went further, calling Fiat's scheme "unacceptable."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has reportedly drawn up a 14-point list of criteria that any buyer of GM Europe has to fulfil before Berlin opens its chequebook.

Frank Schwope, auto analyst at NordLB bank, said that Fiat also has its work cut out winning over GM executives in Detroit to its idea, telling AFP that "GM, at the most, will allow Fiat to take a minority stake in Opel."

Germany's press also gave Fiat's plans a cool reception, with a Sueddeutsche Zeitung editorial calling them "far too ambitious". The Frankfurter Allgemeine warned though that Opel is "not entitled to issue big-mouthed demands."

Fiat is also not the only show in town.

The Financial Times reported that as many as six others including sovereign wealth funds from Abu Dhabi and Singapore and three private equity groups were eyeing GM Europe too.

Also waiting in the wings is Canadian car parts giant Magna, reportedly teaming up with Russian automaker GAZ, controlled by billionaire Oleg Deripaska, and Russia's biggest lender Sberbank.

Events on the other side of the Atlantic may also cause Marchionne a headache, with a group of disgruntled Chrysler creditors launching a bid on Monday to block the US firm's "illegal" and "fatally flawed" restructuring.

Under a plan announced on Thursday by US President Barack Obama, Chrysler aims for a "surgical" bankruptcy to wipe out a portion of its debts, allowing the creation of a new firm owned by unions, governments – and, perhaps, Fiat.

Simon Sturdee/AFP/Expatica

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