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ANGELA MERKEL

Berlin miffed at US as Opel talks collapse

Talks aimed at saving General Motors Europe's Opel unit broke down amid acrimony between Germany and the United States on Thursday as fears mounted for tens of thousands of jobs across Europe.

Berlin miffed at US as Opel talks collapse
Photo: DPA

The marathon negotiations were aimed at finding a suitable buyer for GM’s struggling European operations, with the German government willing to offer billions of euros in loan guarantees to any potential investor.

Two bidders, Italian car giant Fiat and Canadian auto parts maker Magna International remained in the race after a third bidder, Brussels-based investment firm RHJ International pulled out during the talks.

German officials blamed the breakdown on a last-minute request from GM for an extra €300 million ($415 million) in funds for Opel, lashing out at General Motors for “scandalous” negotiating tactics.

Speaking to reporters in the early morning, German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück said: “We were unpleasantly surprised when this new demand came out of the blue at 8:00 pm local time. We found that pretty scandalous.”

“GM again confronted us with new figures,” Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said, adding that the US government “could have made more of an effort” with its choice of representative at the discussions.

“We have made a fresh request to the US Treasury and we expect a response before Friday,” he said, calling its input so far “marginal, to put it politely.”

Steinbrück also said that he did not want German government money to go “outside Europe’s borders.”

A new round of talks is scheduled for Friday as Berlin races against time to find a preferred bidder ahead of GM’s likely bankruptcy on June 1. Declaring Opel insolvent is also still an option.

Officials at Wednesday night’s talks also discussed putting Opel in a trust to keep it operating with a temporary “bridging loan” from the government worth some €1.5 billion.

This model was given a boost on Wednesday by Opel’s announcement that GM had transferred control of GM’s European factories and its patents to the German subsidiary, allowing the firm still to operate in the event of a bankruptcy of the US giant.

“If GM goes bankrupt, we don’t want the lights going out at Opel,” Vice-Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is challenging Angela Merkel for the chancellorship in September elections, told reporters late on Wednesday.

Merkel is under pressure from all sides to find a way to break the deadlock, with some 25,000 German jobs at stake just four months before the country goes to the polls.

Berlin also came under fire from other European countries on Wednesday with Britain and Belgium pressing Germany not to strike a deal that would protect German workers at the expense of employees elsewhere.

The European Commission in Brussels called for a meeting of European finance and industry ministers on the issue “as soon as possible.”

GM employs 55,000 people Europe-wide, including around 7,000 in Spain, 4,700 in Britain at Vauxhall, 4,000 in Sweden at Saab, 3,600 in Poland, 2,600 in Belgium and 1,800 in Italy.

Of the two bidders left standing, Magna’s offer is still seen as the front runner, with unions and centre-left Social Democrat members of the governing coalition backing it.

It has teamed up with Russia’s top bank, state-controlled Sberbank, for a bid that would see precious metals tycoon Oleg Deripaska’s truck company GAZ making Opel vehicles in Russia.

For its part, Fiat wants to combine General Motors’ European and Latin American operations with Chrysler, in which it has secured a 20-percent stake, to create the world’s second largest automaker after Toyota of Japan.

Although the final decision on the fate of GM’s European operations lies with the company itself and the US government, Germany has a key role to play as it is stumping up a good deal of the cash to keep the factories going.

An eleventh-hour “expression of interest” by a Chinese firm, Beijing Automotive Industry Holding, was still under consideration, but German officials made clear their focus was on Magna and Fiat.

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POLITICS

Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)
 

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.

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