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Germany is not Opel

We are the people, we are the Pope – we are Opel. The motto printed on the fetching yellow t-shirts of Opel workers certainly has its charm. But it also shows the ridiculous importance Germans have attached to the fate of one struggling carmaker, argues Moritz Döbler from Berlin’s newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.

Germany is not Opel
Photo: DPA

The emotions stirred by Thursday’s announcement that US carmaker General Motors had agreed to sell its German unit Opel to the Canadian auto parts firm Magna could lead one to think something revolutionary had happened. But as grave as the employees’ concerns are, and as nostalgic as Germans might be for vintage models like the Kadett and the Rekord, the national economy is not dependent on Opel.

And with Germany’s general election looming, there is a demand for clear truths. There have to be winners and losers. One thing is clear: GM, America’s biggest car manufacturer, has bowed to pressure from Germany. The next two weeks will decide which political party will be able to capitalise on this in the election campaign.

“The joy is the focus right now,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) without much joy, but she’ll certainly do her best to milk it for political capital. This should be easier for the centre-left Social Democrats and their candidate trying to oust Merkel from the Chancellery, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Did he not come up with the wildly popular car-scrapping premium, the Abwrackprämie? Did he not fight stubbornly shoulder-to-shoulder with the trade unions to secure the Magna deal? Didn’t we distinctly see the conservatives waver then? Didn’t Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg almost talk Opel into insolvency?

Still, the deal demonstrates the new prerogative of Germany’s political class. With the economic crisis raging, countries all over the world are bailing out corporations with unimaginable amounts of money. The US government has forked out $50 billion for GM alone. Opel’s plight has loosened €1.5 billion from the pockets of Germany’s federal and state governments, while around twice that much is still available to the carmaker with hardly a condition or a caveat in sight. And that isn’t necessarily the end of it. The German government is insisting that no new agreements will be made, but that can change if push comes to shove again.

Even if the state is apparently laying itself open to blackmail, those vast sums of money are having an effect. For a long time the Opel impasse looked like it would end in defeat for the politicians. The federal government, the state governments and the trade unions had all backed the Magna-led consortium bid for months, only for GM to first bring another bidder to the table, and then consider not selling it to anyone. But in the end GM acquiesced – though Detroit will keep a third of Opel in order to not burn its bridges with its European and Russian customers. Besides, GM would have had difficulty trying to recapitalise Opel on its own.

So Germany’s politicians won and GM won, but whether Opel and its workers will win is still undecided. Even the Magna plan, for which everyone fought so hard, will not work without huge redundancies. Only Opel’s Antwerp plant is to be closed for now, but no-one knows how long the German plants will be safe. Magna wants to cut nearly a fifth of Opel’s 55,000-strong European workforce, blaming overcapacity in the auto industry and Opel’s high manufacturing costs.

And the carmaker’s economic prospects also remain uncertain. Opel, having spent 80 years in American ownership, is still trying to catch up technologically. This won’t necessarily be any easier in the hands of a Russian bank and a Canadian parts supplier. There is even a fear that Opel might experience a similar fate to Siemens, who fobbed its mobile phone division to BenQ. But that couldn’t help avert insolvency and job losses for German workers as the technology was shipped off to Taiwan. Magna and Sberbank can have the best intentions in the world, but no-one can protect Opel if plants are moved elsewhere.

Such concerns are not born of Cold War prejudices, as some have suggested, but relatively simple calculations. Magna and Sberbank want to make a profit from the majority of Opel they’ve just taken over. But the last few decades have shown how difficult this is – GM could only manage it in spurts.

If Opel is to establish itself as a manufacturer of environmentally friendly cars, massive investment will be necessary. The German production sites are too expensive to make Opel into a manufacturer of cheap cars for emerging economies. This is Opel’s dilemma – this week’s announcement merely granted its workers some breathing space.

This commentary was published with the kind permission of Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, where it originally appeared in German. Translation by The Local.

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‘A megacity on a smaller scale’: An insiders’ guide to Frankfurt

Our readers in Frankfurt shared their insights into what life in the city and surroundings is really like, and revealed their top tips.

'A megacity on a smaller scale': An insiders' guide to Frankfurt

Known as Mainhattan thanks to its impressive skyscraper skyline, and with a bustling jobs scene, it’s no wonder that Frankfurt am Main is a city that many foreigners consider moving to. 

But aside from business, we wanted to find out what else makes Frankfurt – and the area around it – tick. And who better to ask than The Local readers who live there?

International feel, good connections and great nature

Maybe it has something to do with the many flight connections to the rest of the world from the airport, or perhaps it’s the thriving jobs scene. Whatever the case, readers said something special about Frankfurt is that it’s an international city with a small-town feel. 

“Frankfurt really offers the best aspects of a large megacity like NYC, London or Paris on a much smaller scale – so it offers world-class shopping, cuisine and amenities without overwhelming crowds,” said Michael Schacht, 31. “It’s super multinational as a result.”

Richard Davison, 45, who lives in the Sachsenhausen area of Frankfurt, said: “In my opinion Frankfurt is a special city as it is very international. As people come for work, it seems that it is very welcoming as many people are new, or have not lived in the city for a long time.

“There is a wide variety of affordable cuisine, bars and hospitality. It is a big city feel in a small city. What makes it special is the green spaces and surrounding nature: Taunus, Spessart, Odenwald and the Rhine and vineyards. Trains and flights are also so easy from Frankfurt.”

A boat sails across the Main river in Frankfurt.

A boat sails across the Main river in Frankfurt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

READ ALSO: 10 facts you probably didn’t know about Frankfurt (even if you live there)

Tom Boon, 26, who lives in central Frankfurt, said “the diversity” is the best part of life in the Hesse city that’s home to about 753,000 people. 

“It’s also a great place for English speakers to feel comfortable as you can always bump into somebody you can talk to,” he added. 

Laura, 42, from Sweden, said the best thing about Frankfurt is the “diversity” and that it “feels like a village in some parts”.

Angeeka Biswas, 34, said Frankfurt’s positive points include it being “accessible by public transport in almost all parts of the town” as well as the different cuisine available, and the large expat population. 

“Frankfurt has lots to offer and is full of many different shops, restaurants and bars,” said Frankfurt resident Cara Schaeffer.

“Frankfurt is also surrounded by the Taunus mountain range,” said Schaeffer. “However the most special thing about Frankfurt are the people that live there.

“You’ll meet people from all over the world from different cultures, regions and backgrounds. It’s an extremely international city, where more than 25 percent of the residents don’t have a German passport.”

People at Frankfurt's main station on June 1st, the start of Germany's €9 monthly travel ticket offer.

People at Frankfurt’s main station on June 1st, the start of Germany’s €9 monthly travel ticket offer. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Arne Dedert

Lots of people said the surrounding nature was a real draw of Frankfurt.

Nichola, 64, said the “proximity to the Main River, access to the Großer Feldberg region with the possibility of cycling in the summer and skiing in the winter,” were some of the best things about Frankfurt.

She also said the airport is “one of the hubs for Lufthansa so it’s easy to fly almost anywhere”.

Where are the best places to go?

Lots of people talked about the food and drink offering in the Hesse city, as well as the landscape. 

Natalie, who lives in Taunus, said: “Explore the Taunus, walk the river, shop on the Zeil (street), eat in Saschenhausen or in Bornheim or Nordend.” 

“Go for brunch,” said Angeeka Biswas. “Bike beside the Main river, exercise or just sit beside the river. It feels so calm inside the chaos of the city.”

READ ALSO: Hesse – 7 maps that explain the home of Germany’s financial hub

Smruthi Panyam said his top tip is to grab a steak at M Steakhouse in Feuerbachstraße.

Simon Slade, 70, in Wehrheim, recommends “the English Theatre, walking or cycling along the river Main” as well renting a car and driving north west to “the Hintertaunus and the river Lahn – you will find stunningly beautiful countryside”.

Slade also said Frankfurt has “numerous organic veggie and vegan restaurants, especially along the Bergerstrasse”.

“If you want real authentic high quality traditional German inexpensive food at half the price of Frankfurt, try the Taunus restaurant in Obernhain.” he added.

READ ALSO: Three German cities ranked in the top 10 places to live

Cara Schaefer’s top tips include going to the top of the Main Tower to view the city, taking a boat tour, and enjoying the nightlife “especially at 22nd lounge, a cocktail bar on the 22nd floor of a sky scraper”.

Schaefer’s top restaurant tips are Saravanaa Bhavan, a vegetarian Indian restaurant near the main station and Ristorante Arte – an Italian in the Bockenheim district.

People toast an Apfelwein on the banks of the river Main.

People toast an Apfelwein on the banks of the river Main. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Rumpenhorst

Tom Boon recommends that visitors “take the Ebbelwei Expreß, a tourist tram that loops around the city every half hour or so”.

“The ticket includes a drink and pretzels,” he added. Meanwhile, Boon says the best pizza in Frankfurt “can be found at Giulio’s on Wittelsbacherallee”.

Lots of our readers said Apfelwein – known colloquially as Ebbelwoi, is the drink to try out in Frankfurt. 

Boon said: “Apfelwein arguably trumps beer in Frankfurt. I prefer to drink it mixed with cola (it’s much better than it sounds, and popular enough that it is sold premixed in cans), though some traditional Apfelwein pubs will refuse to serve this combination based on tradition.

“I would recommend avoiding the big chain-eque bars in favour of the smaller pubs and beer gardens dotted around the city.”

Others flagged up the architecture and buildings. 

I really love going to the Dom Romer district to see the old city hall and rebuilt square which is really eye-catching,” said Michael Schacht.

“The New Altstadt is also really beautiful. I also like walking along the river bank when the weather is nice, visiting Old Sachsenhausen and Bornheim for a cozier small town vibe. Though a bit on the outskirts, Hochst has a traditional medieval Altstadt that’s worth a stop to see.”

Keep a lookout for our second feature on Frankfurt coming soon.