Opel Faces Bumpy Road After Sale

BERLIN (AP) -- GM's decision to sell Opel to Canadian auto parts maker Magna International and a Russian bank was a political victory for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but the carmaker's future success is far from guaranteed.

Faced with restructuring and a tough global automobile market, critics maintain that a deal driven by election year pressure may not save Opel in the long run.

Guido Westerwelle, whose opposition Free Democrats want to govern with Merkel's party after the Sept. 27 elections, said the vague details of the deal to have been made public suggest "an attempt to bolster the ruling parties during the election campaign."

"I fear the worst is yet to come -- after the election," Westerwelle told broadcaster ZDF after the deal was announced.

Securing Opel, which employs some 49,000 workers in Europe and built 1.7 million cars in 2008, will require a restructuring that may include layoffs and plant closures, as well as a complicated new business arrangement.

German Economy Minister Karl-Theodor von Guttenberg, who originally proposed the Magna bid, acknowledged that Magna will have to restructure Opel drastically to keep it competitive. "That requires a lot of work," Guttenberg told ZDF.

Magna's chairman Frank Stronach told the Austrian daily Oesterreich that Opel hadn't made a profit in a long time and that the slow economy would weigh on a new Opel.

"It will be tough going for everyone involved," he was quoted as saying.

General Motors Co. announced Thursday it would sell 55 percent of its Ruesselsheim-Germany based Adam Opel and Vauxhall unit to Magna International Inc. and Russian lender Sberbank in a partnership that also includes automaker OAO GAZ. The deal that lets GM keep a minority stake and cooperate on product development organization, sharing Opel's technology and engineering resources.

GM had sought to unload Opel since it ran into severe financial trouble late last year, seeking state help in November 2008. Its European operations, which then included Saab, saw an operating loss of about $2 billion in the first quarter and nearly $4 billion in losses between 2006 and 2008.

Industry analysts say the Opel unit has too many employees and too much factory capacity for its sales level and its costs are too high. The deal still depends on conditions that could take weeks or months to work out, such as final agreement for government financing and union support.

At a press conference Thursday meant to tout the deal to reporters, two representatives of the interim trust controlling Opel denounced it as political opportunism, partially because it favored German facilities over those in other countries.

"I would not have accepted this job if I had known from the beginning that there would be a political rather than a commercial decision," Dirk Pfeil said, adding that he preferred a more "Europe-friendly" bid from Belgian-based private equity group RHJ International. Pfeil was appointed to represent the German government on the five-member board and abstained from voting.

"The RHJ bid meant that more workers would be dismissed in Germany but fewer in Europe," he said.

John Smith, GM's chief negotiator for the deal, said Magna planned to keep all four Opel plants in Germany open but could shift production from a Zaragosa, Spain plant to Eisenach, Germany and would "wind down" work at a factory in Antwerp, Belgium were 2,200 workers build the Corsa compact car.

The Belgian government said Friday it wants the European Union to investigate the Magna deal for evidence that Germany sought to protect its own plants.

Besides plants in Germany and Belgium, Opel also has factories in Poland, Portugal and Spain, and sister brand Vauxhall has plants in Britain.

The Flanders regional government says it is still prepared to spend euro300 million ($437.8 million) to upgrade the Antwerp factory and another euro200 million to buy the building under a sale and lease-back operation in exchange for assurances that it will stay open.

Manfred Wennemer, the former CEO of auto parts maker Continental AG, represented the four German states with Opel factories on the trust board. Yet he voted against Magna.

"I believe we do not have a solution which will turn Opel into a competitive company at the end of the day," Wennemer said.

IHS Global Insight auto ananalyst Tim Urquhart said that for GM, Magna and its Russian partner were the best of a bad situation, but that any sales in Russia were unlikely to provide immediate rescue.

"What does the future hold? It's a risky strategy relying heavily on Russia which is down by a half this year and will probably take some time before it comes back to year-ago levels," he said.

Barclay's Capital said in a research note the deal could also impact Magna's parts business as it might lose some car manufacturing customers that don't want to deal with a competitor. Barclay's said for example, that Volkswagen has indicated that it would move away from buying Magna parts if it bought Opel.

Stronach said the company would set up "firewalls" between its parts business and Opel to keep confidential information separate and secure.

Associated Press writers Raf Casert in Brussels and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.

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