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Opel's automotive onus

Andrew Bulkeley · 28 May 2009, 16:03

Published: 28 May 2009 16:03 GMT+02:00

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After spending hours and hours reading and reporting on this Opel mess, two things occur to me: we’ve been here before and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s capacity for hypocrisy is astounding.

Allow me to explain.

When I started my career as a financial journalist over a decade ago, I spent most of my time following a charismatic European auto executive around. He told anyone and everyone about how, in the future, there would only be about five carmakers left and he wanted to make sure his was one of them.

At the time, the executive – Jürgen Schrempp – was buying Chrysler for his company Daimler-Benz. That marriage famously failed, mostly because of the inability of Germans and Americans to get along while the global auto industry was crumbling around them. But if he failed in practice, Schrempp appears to have persevered in theory.

His idea is now championed by Sergio Marchionne, the equally charismatic CEO of Fiat SpA. Although Marchionne has foregone Schrempp’s expensive suits in favour of expensive sweaters, he wants to create the world’s second-largest carmaker by linking up Fiat not only with Opel, but – wait for it – with Chrysler too.

That is, he wants to rid the world of two unhealthy carmakers by merging them into a global powerhouse backed by his Italian champion. Ergo: Fiat would be one of the five that would survive.

Well, that is, if Berlin will let him.

Despite the worrying work ahead of them, German politicians are doing a pretty poor job of disguising their constant campaigning for this September’s general election. Every newspaper claims it isn’t Fiat’s Opel offer they prefer but rather one from a Canadian parts maker known as Magna, which has allied itself with a dubious Russian vehicle maker and a Russian bank.

Why do German leaders like this offer so much? Because it promises the fewest German job cuts. You’d think politicians – who have plenty of experience with making and breaking promises – would look a big sceptically at this motley bidding consortium but, in hopes of winning the votes of Gerhard Opelworker and his family, they are taking Magna and its Russian friends at their word.

All may be fair game in an election year, but Chancellor Merkel has spent most of her first term talking about how distasteful Russian investors can be. Heck, she even pushed and passed legislation that allows the German government to review – and potentially reject – foreign investment in “strategic” industries. At the time, her fellow Christian Democrat, Hesse’s state premier Roland Koch, even singled out Russian investors as a main reason for the legislation.

You see, Russians wanted to buy into an aerospace and defence company known as EADS. No, said Merkel. They also considered picking up a stake in Deutsche Bahn had its IPO actually proceeded. Probably not, came the answer from the Chancellery. How about part of utility Eon AG? Uh-uh.

Story continues below…

And now all of a sudden Russian investors are Opel’s best friend? How soon you forget, Frau Merkel. But maybe everyone should take a gander over their shoulder.

Let’s hope Signor Marchionne has learned from the past otherwise it may soon be automotive déjà vu for me again – I spent plenty of time covering the downfall and dethronement of Jürgen Schrempp and his would-be global car empire. Marchionne and his Fiat-Chrysler-Opel conglomeration could be next.

Andrew Bulkeley is the Berlin correspondent for the US financial magazine The Deal and a frequent contributor to The Local.

Andrew Bulkeley (news@thelocal.de)

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