'New Opel' raises new worries

12th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

With a deal unveiled Thursday to sell Opel to Canadian auto parts maker Magna and state-owned Russian lender Sberbank, many are wondering what the new company will look like and – most pressingly – whom it will employ.

Berlin -- Relief across Europe that General Motors has found a buyer for its Opel unit turned on Friday to worries about job cuts and plant closures, and over whether the new company can survive.

Under the deal unveiled on Thursday, GM has agreed to sell a 55-percent stake in Opel to Canadian auto parts maker Magna and to state-owned Russian lender Sberbank. GM will retain 35 percent and employees the rest.

The deal covers all GM's European operations except Swedish unit Saab.

The breakthrough was seen as a coup for Germany, where the government under Chancellor Angela Merkel had pressed hard for GM to choose Magna and Sberbank, offering 4.5 billion euros in financial sweeteners.

Half of Opel's 50,000 employees work in Germany, and in a boost for Merkel's chances of winning a second term in elections on September 27, Opel's new owners have pledged to keep open its four main plants in the country.

"I am exceptionally happy about this decision, which is along the lines of what the government wanted," a visibly relieved Merkel said in Berlin on Thursday, as she rushed to unveil the news even before GM.

But with Magna expected to cut 10,000 jobs, elsewhere in Europe there were worries about where the axe would fall.

Opel has about 7,000 employees in Spain, 4,700 employees at Vauxhall in Britain, 5,500 employees in Belgium, 1,800 in Italy, 1,600 in Austria and 1,500 in France, according to GM Europe's website.

GM vice-president John Smith said in Berlin on Thursday that Opel's new owners were "contemplating" winding down a plant at Antwerp, Belgium, and shifting some production from Spain to Germany.

Unions in Belgium expressed hope that a decision to close Antwerp had not yet been taken, and the head of the Flemish government called on the European Commission to probe conditions attached to Germany's state aid.

In Britain, Business Secretary Peter Mandelson said on Thursday that he was upbeat about the future for Vauxhall's workforce, saying he was "satisfied" about the new owners' "commitment to Vauxhall's plants."

But Vauxhall workers were less optimistic, with one saying: "I'm absolutely devastated, for the simple reason it doesn't secure the long-term future for this place. The morale is low."

It is also far from certain that Magna and Sberbank will be able to carve out a place for "New Opel" in a still struggling global auto industry where in Europe and North America too many cars are being made for too few customers.

"The winner today could be the loser tomorrow," analyst Juergen Pieper from Metzler Bank told AFP. "Everyone knows there is enormous over capacity in the market ... and Opel is by far the weakest player in Europe today."

"Magna cannot be a big help in industrial terms. They haven't constructed any cars of their own, they don't have volume they don't have anything to combine Opel's products with, they cannot deliver special expertise."

The deal is not done and dusted either, with what GM called "several key issues" still to be dealt with in the coming weeks, leading some commentators to speculate that it may yet unravel.

Simon Sturdee/AFP/Expatica

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