Germany Rushing To Secure Opel's Future

BERLIN (AP) -- Germany pressed for an independent future for General Motors Corp.'s Europe-based Opel unit on Wednesday, with the country's foreign minister saying "the lights must not go out" as its U.S. parent headed for a likely bankruptcy filing.

Chancellor Angela Merkel was gathering German and U.S. officials, along with representatives of GM and of Opel's suitors at her office in Berlin for a meeting aimed at putting Opel on the road to safety.

Hours earlier, Opel's supervisory board approved a plan to package GM assets for a new investor by pooling GM's European plants, sales operations, patents and other assets, excluding Sweden's Saab unit, debt-free under the German-based Adam Opel GmbH subsidiary, said Karin Kirchner, a spokeswoman for GM Europe.

"This way it can join a partnership with a potential investor," Kirchner said. "You have one company that would be invested in or would sell a stake."

GM would chose any new investor, but Germany would decide on whether a new owner would get further government assistance, and if so what kind.

Some 25,000 people work for Opel in Germany, nearly half of GM Europe's total work force, and national elections in September are putting pressure on politicians to find a solution that avoids as many layoffs as possible.

Italy's Fiat SpA, a consortium of Canadian auto parts maker Magna International Inc. and Russia's Sberbank, and U.S. investment firm Ripplewood Holdings LLC have all filed bids for Opel. Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne and Magna chairman Frank Stronach arrived at Merkel's office ahead of Wednesday's meeting.

Kirchner said the consolidation also would help keep Opel's assets separate from a bankruptcy filing by GM, a move that seemed inevitable Wednesday after bondholders balked at its plan to swap bond debt for company stock.

"If General Motors were to go bankrupt in the coming days, the lights must not go out at Opel because of that," Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is also vice chancellor, told reporters before the meeting.

"We must set the course for an independent future for Opel -- a course that must be set this evening," Steinmeier said.

The German government has proposed putting Opel under a trustee to allow time for talks to continue with investors. Officials signaled that that would be an important element in Wednesday's talks, and GM's Kirchner said Germany and GM would have equal rights to Opel under that plan.

"The pooling of assets is the first step. Then you can expect that a substantial part of these assets will go into a trustee structure," she said.

Steinmeier said he was confident that government bridge financing would be nailed down on Wednesday.

Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said Germany needed to reach an agreement with U.S. officials and GM about how Opel might be transferred to a new owner or investor.

"We absolutely need this agreement with the U.S. side," Guttenberg said, adding that a bankruptcy filing for Opel was still possible if all other options failed.

It was unclear whether Wednesday's meeting would bring clarity on what, if any, suitor will secure Opel.

"It is rather unlikely that the result of tonight will be that future negotiations will be conducted with one investor alone," government spokesman Thomas Steg told reporters. He added that it was unclear whether a "ranking" of suitors would emerge.

Still, Steinmeier said that "we must signal to the Americans with what partner we want to shape the future of Opel ... decisions are needed tonight on that."

Sister brand Vauxhall has almost 5,000 employees at two plants in Britain.

British Business Secretary Peter Mandelson told the BBC that his government "will be a player."

"We will be representing the interests of the workforce of Vauxhall in the UK and if that means having to make some financial underwriting of any new arrangements then of course we would consider doing that," he said.

EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy had written to him to ask the EU executive to help coordinate rescue efforts by European governments for General Motors' plants in all of Europe.

"It's not just a German problem, it's a European problem," Barroso told reporters.

Belgium's Flemish regional government is eager to save Opel's Antwerp plant, which employs some 2,700 workers.

Germans officials say a fourth potential suitor -- Chinese carmaker Beijing Automotive Industry Corp. -- has expressed interest in Opel, but has not filed a full plan.

Steg, the government spokesman, said the Chinese suitor would not attend Wednesday's meeting.

Associated Press writer Patrick McGroarty contributed to this report.

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