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Germany

German Minister Heads to US to Explore GM-Opel Breakup

German Economics Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has traveled to the United States to sound out the chances for German automaker Opel to leave its struggling parent company, General Motors.

A yellow Opel flag

Many Germans would like to see Opel break from GM

Guttenberg, on his first trans-Atlantic trip since taking office, was set to meet with GM head Rick Wagoner on Monday, March 16, to discuss possible ways Opel could break free of GM.

The US carmaker has received billions of dollars in emergency funding from the US government, but it continues to flounder.

GM has requested the European countries where it has plants, including Germany, provide 3.3 billion euros ($4.2 billion) in order for the company to survive. Berlin, however, is concerned bailout money it provides could end up flowing across the Atlantic to GM rather than to secure production in Germany.

One of the main issues Guttenberg will address is the ownership of patents and other intellectual property Opel requires to continue producing cars. He will also explore GM and the US government's willingness to let go of Opel.

Chancellor Angela Merkel told public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk that Guttenberg needed to "clarify how General Motors would be able to back away in order to give Opel more room to move."

No easy answers

Guttenberg

It is Guttenberg's first US trip as a German minister

Guttenberg is not expected to bring back a final answer on the Opel issue, however. Berlin has made it clear it wants to know exactly what the US administration has planned with GM before it makes a decision about offering state aid to Opel.

"I have been told that the US government will decide what it will do in regard to GM within the next 14 days," German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck said.

GM has been hard hit by the global downturn in car sales. Auditors have raised "substantial doubts" over the iconic US manufacturer's ability to survive the storm.

The firm has said that it could cut up to 47,000 jobs worldwide, raising serious concerns for its European subsidiaries Opel, Vauxhall and Saab -- all of whose futures are now in doubt.

Even if GM does decide it would sell its German-based subsidiary, the company would have to find a buyer. Merkel has said the government may be willing to provide loan guarantees to the company but would not buy a direct stake in the automaker.

Independent investor needed

Employees walk into a Opel factory

The nation fears for thousands of Opel jobs

Signaling that a possible Opel bailout could become a central theme to campaigning ahead of September's parliamentary elections, Franz Muentefering, head of the Social Democratic Party, which currently shares power with Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, did not rule out the state coming to Opel's aid.

"I can imagine the state taking a stake (in an independent Opel) if it is a temporary measure to ensure the stability of a company that for the most part can survive on its own," he told the Super Illu magazine.

Leaders in the four German states with Opel factories are keen to find ways of preserving up to 50,000 jobs that could be at stake, should Opel -- and the suppliers it depends on -- crumble.

Hesse Premier Roland Koch also said he would consider providing aid to an independent investor interested in buying Opel, which has its headquarters in his state.

"My conception would be the creation of a new, European Opel in which a private investor takes a stake in addition to its current parent company, General Motors," Koch told German newsmagazine Der Spiegel.

He added that the state and federal governments could step in with guarantees for two to three years if the investor had difficulty receiving credit.

Guttenberg's schedule calls for additional talks with US President Barack Obama's economic advisor Larry Summers; US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner; the heads the IMF and World Bank; as well as several US banks on Tuesday.

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