Ausgabe 21/2009

Controversial Rescue Plan Opel to Become Battleground in Election Campaign

The German government wants to rescue Opel with a trusteeship scheme that avoids a public stake in the ailing carmaker. It remains to be seen whether the plan will work, but it's already clear that Opel will be a major campaign battleground ahead of the September 27 general election.

German Economics Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) recently experienced first-hand how quickly a politician can go from being a shining light to a political punching bag. Last Thursday, he was sitting with a number of colleagues in Chancellor Angela Merkel's office when he suddenly came under a hail of criticism.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, campaigning to oust Merkel in a general election on September 27, and other members of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) tried to put the economics minister on the spot. They tormented him with detailed questions about Opel, many of which he wasn't able to answer fully.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (L), the Social Democrat candidate to become chancellor in a September 27 general election, is using Opel as a battleground in his campaign.
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Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (L), the Social Democrat candidate to become chancellor in a September 27 general election, is using Opel as a battleground in his campaign.

The election wrangling surrounding the Opel rescue is coming to a head -- and the SPD, which shares power with Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and the CSU in an unhappy coalition, is doing its best to chip away at Guttenberg and force the conservatives into a corner. Finding an interim solution to shore up Opel is the latest hot topic.

Since Opel will run out of money soon, current plans call for a trustee to take over the company until the German government has found an investor. By Wednesday of this week, Italian carmaker Fiat and a separate consortium of investors led by Austrian-Canadian automotive supplier Magna are expected to present their takeover plans.

The German government then intends to reach a decision, together with Opel's US parent company General Motors and the US government, on who will purchase Opel. It could take months before a deal is sealed.

To bridge this transition period, the chancellor and the relevant ministers agreed in principle on Thursday on a "dual-purpose trusteeship model. We were in "full agreement," said Guttenberg afterwards. But the members of the SPD who attended the meeting found that the discussion was "unsatisfactory."

A number of days earlier, Steinmeier had already sounded the attack on Guttenberg during a conversation with Merkel. He complained about the "quality of information-sharing" on the Opel rescue package. For instance, the task force of senior civil servants dealing with the issue didn't inform him of Guttenberg's plan to pursue a trusteeship model, said Steinmeier, adding that he had to read about it in SPIEGEL. Steinmeier also accused Guttenberg of moving too slowly on Opel.

The Social Democrats want the chancellery to take over leadership of the government's bid to rescue Opel. Until now it has been handled by Guttenberg's Economy Ministry. Merkel has dismissed these complaints, saying that she has confidence in Guttenberg's abilities. At the same time, she said the government should boost its internal coordination on Opel. The trusteeship solution calls for GM's European operations to be placed under the control of a new holding company. According to this plan, the management board would include two representatives each from GM and the creditors, as well as an independent trustee.

Aim to Prevent US From Siphoning off Funds

This trustee holding would ensure that no funds would be siphoned off from Europe to pay off GM's debts in the US. This applies in particular to the approximately €1.5 billion ($2 billion) in interim loans that Opel will need over the coming months to maintain operations and production. In the meantime, a contract could be negotiated with an investor.

The plan is for this money to be provided by a consortium of banks. Since Opel currently has no credit among private banks, public financial institutions would have to advance the money. Possible funding sources include the German state development bank KfW and publicly owned state banks, or Landesbanken, like Helaba, which belongs to Hesse and Thuringia -- two important Opel production regions. These funds would be safeguarded by government loan guarantees.

Fiat and Magna have also been asked if they want to take part in the interim financing. According to government sources, a show of generosity here could increase their chances of being awarded the sale.

There is no alternative to this approach. A direct government stake in the automaker, as supported by the SPD, is out of the question because the conservatives oppose it. And the government won't permit an "orderly insolvency as the starting point for a successful new beginning," as Guttenberg has suggested as a possible alternative.

The "dual-purpose trusteeship" model would help both coalition partners.

The Social Democrats could persuade voters that this basically means that the government is purchasing a stake in Opel -- although there is still a long ways to go before that happens.

On the other hand, Guttenberg and his fellow conservatives can continue to maintain that they are adhering to a market economy solution that doesn't involve a government stake in Opel. But there are also politicians such as Michael Fuchs, the CDU's spokesman on small and medium-sized businesses, who say that the trusteeship solution is a step towards socialism and "nationalizing Opel." In effect, the conservatives have distanced themselves significantly from their initial position of -- at most -- granting state loan guarantees.

Ultimately, the trusteeship solution depends on the Americans, who have been dragging their feet during the negotiations. "It's a bluffing game of power and influence," says a government source.

This week a delegation from the chancellery as well as the Finance and Economics Ministries will travel to Washington for direct talks. Time is running out. The bridge financing provided by the trusteeship solution needs to be approved by the cabinet and the parliament by May 28 -- the date when Opel may already run out of money.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen


© DER SPIEGEL 21/2009
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