By on November 30, 2010

The following is a “Confidential” memo from the US embassy in Berlin, leaked in the latest Wikileaks dump, describing German reaction to GM’s flip-flop decision to not sell its German subsidiary, Opel. The memo reveals that Germany saw GM as a “unreliable partner” and that at least one German government official believed that “if the U.S. Government had GM under better control, this would not have happened.” The document also confirms that GM scuttled the deal largely over concerns about Russian access to its intellectual property, and that Opel may well have been happy to see the deal fall apart rather than face losing its entire BMW supply business. Though none of this information is completely new, the leaked document provides a fascinating insight into the muddled mess that was the Opel rescue.

BERLIN 00001395 001.2 OF 002

Classified By: ECONMIN Robert A. Pollard for reasons 1.4 (b,d).

1. (C) Summary: Just hours after Chancellor Merkel’s historic November 3 address to a joint session of Congress, General Motors (GM) canceled its sale of Opel to Canadian auto parts manufacturer Magna. The decision, which followed repeated assurances from GM that it was a done deal, came as a complete shock in Germany and dominated media coverage throughout the day. Merkel herself was reportedly highly upset over GM’s flip flop. Ulrich Wilhelm, the Chancellor’s spokesman on Opel said the German government “regretted” the decision, and reminded GM that it must now repay Berlin’s 1.5 billion bridge loan to Opel by the end of the month, while FDP Economics Minister Rainer Bruederle described GM’s action as “totally unacceptable.” The cabinet was expected to discuss the GM move on November 4. Opel’s labor unions, which had strongly backed the Magna sale because of its promise to save jobs and keep plants open, announced that workers would withdraw all concessions made under the terms of the Magna deal and start a general strike at Opel plants on November 5. While anger is widespread, there are already some voices outside the government advocating acceptance of GM’s announcement as the only viable alternative to a total collapse of Opel. End Summary.

Germany’s Political Establishment Reacts with Anger
——————————————— ——

2. (C) Opinion across the political spectrum has been uniformly negative. FDP Economics Minister Rainer Bruederle blasted GM’s behavior as “totally unacceptable.” Juergen
Ruettgers, Minister President of Nordrhein Westfallen (CDU), asserted that GM’s decision showed “the ugly face of turbo capitalism.” The leadership of the FDP, whose opposition to government intervention in the Opel deal is well known, joined in the condemnation of GM. A high-level source indicated that Chancellor Merkel is furious over the GM move and refuses to talk to GM’s leadership. It is likely to be only a matter of time before critics will call Merkel herself into account for her strong support of the now collapsed Magna deal. The Cabinet has been called into session and is likely to confirm the withdrawal of all financial support and a demand that GM repay the government’s 1.5 billion Euro bridge loan by the end of the month.

3. (C) Jochen Homann, the Economic Ministry State Secretary heading the German interagency working group on Opel, told EMIN on November 4 that there was no possibility of further German financial assistance to Opel in the foreseeable future. The failure of the Magna deal and GM’s reputation as “an unreliable partner” would likewise complicate negotiations with other governments seeking to preserve Opel jobs and factories. Although no one directly blamed the USG, the Germans are still having trouble understanding how GM could act independently of Washington. Dr. Schubert, one of Homann’s lieutenants, complained to the Embassy that “if the U.S. Government had GM under better control, this would not have happened.” It is now up to GM, he said, to submit a new restructuring and financing plan, as their previous one is out of date. Schubert was adamant that this time “there will be no special treatment for Opel” and GM’s plan would have to go through normal channels.

Matched by Threats from Organized Labor

4. (SBU) Klaus Franz, the head of Opel’s Works Council, announced on November 4 that Opel’s 25,000 employees in Germany will begin an indefinite strike on November 5 to
protest the GM decision. Franz called on all 55,000 Opel workers across Europe to join in. Accusing GM of “blackmailing” governments and workers in Europe to sign on to its “unacceptable” restructuring Plan, he also revoked prior labor commitments to contribute 388 million dollars in foregone benefits to the Magna sale.

5. (C) Oliver Burkhardt, head of the Metal Workers in NRW, likewise condemned the decision as “bold and unfriendly,” not only to Opel employees, but to the German government.
However, Burkhardt conceded that he is waiting to see a long term GM plan for Opel that relies on more than cost-cutting and down-sizing. In contrast to Klaus Franz, Burkhardt
contended that non-German labor unions were “elated” over the failure of the Magna deal (which was tilted against workers in other countries) and doubted they would heed Franz’s strike call. He also predicted that the strikes in Germany will be short-term and largely symbolic rather than actual closures, adding “we are not going to close the door on a solution with GM.” Similarly, Fred Irwin – Citigroup’s country manager in Germany and the Chair of the Opel Trust that oversaw the Magna negotiations – predicted that unions
will eventually reconcile with GM once they realize there is no other choice.

While Despair Permeates Opel Executives

6. (C) Opel managers such as Berlin Representative Uwe Berlinghoff, who almost uniformly favored the Magna contract, were also “taken completely by surprise” by the GM announcement. Berlinghoff now expects GM to resurrect its pre-Magna restructuring plans, including closure of plants at Bochum (and Antwerp, Belgium) and the sale or closure of the Eisenach plant. Berlinghoff also expected the German government to cancel the expected 4.5 billion dollar loan guarantee package, as “GM has demonstrated its lack of credibility with German politicians.”

Research and Development and IPR Could be Key

7. (C) German auto industry insiders have privately identified compelling reasons why GM cancelled the Magna deal. Among these are the importance of the GM/Opel Research and Development facility in Ruesselsheim and its patents to GM’s development of small efficient cars in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere. GM was also reportedly skeptical that it could adequately protect crucial IPR from Russian exploitation because of the Sberbank/Gaz partnership with Magna. Moreover, Magna had oversold its ability to penetrate
the Russian market. GM’s announcement stressed its plans to build on its already significant business in Russia while retaining Opel and to work closely with Gaz without a Magna

But Auto Leader Welcomes the Move

8. (C) Dr. Norbert Reithofer, the CEO of BMW, told the Ambassador on November 4 that GM’s move would be welcomed by the German auto industry. Reithofer was adamant that there was no way BMW and the other German auto manufacturers would have purchased auto parts from Magna once it became a direct competitor as an auto manufacturer. In Reithofer’s view, Magna made the Opel purchase proposal in a moment of panic at the height of the economic crisis, but now that a recovery is in the offing, probably is not unhappy to see it dissolve.


9. (C) Despite the considerable German ire aimed at GM, much of it is aimed at GM’s handling of Opel (in particular the timing of the November 3 announcement), rather than its
business rationale for retaining its German subsidiary. Thoughtful German opinion leaders, including former Economics Minister zu Guttenberg conservatives in the German business community, were equally critical of Berlin’s strong arm lobbying on behalf of Magna. An Opel Trust Board Member and FDP politician Dirk Pfeil has already issued a statement urging Berlin to provide 3 billion Euro in state aid to keep GM afloat. Like it or not, the German governments will need to seek an accommodation with GM to keep Opel alive.

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8 Comments on “Wikileaks Memo On German Reaction To GM’s Decision To Keep Opel...”

  • avatar

    An unfavorable article about GM? Here? Who could have predicted that.

  • avatar

    GM was worried about letting the Russians get its IP? You mean after eagerly handing their IP over to the Chinese lock, stock and barrel over the last 20 years? Sorry, I don’t buy it. I call BS.

  • avatar

    “Despite the considerable German ire aimed at GM, much of it is aimed at GM’s handling of Opel (in particular the timing of the November 3 announcement), rather than its
    business rationale for retaining its German subsidiary.”

    GM made the correct decision. It is a shame that they put Opel up for sale in the first place (probably out of panic). At least it worked out well in the end.

    Also for those who persist in the Government Motors tag I note that the Germans didn`t see much Governmental control. As predicted the administration had no desire to run an auto company – GM makes ans sells what sells, not what Pelosi suggests. So lets move on!

  • avatar

    My information, admittedly out of conservative corners of Berlin, was at the time that everybody was relieved that GM had said no. There had been strong opposition against bailing Opel out all along, and the proposed Magna deal was done for election purposes only. Now, Berlin could keep their money, show outrage and blame it on the Americans.
    Equipped with that knowledge, I could safely predict that Berlin would NOT come to “an accommodation with GM.”  Which they did not.
    IP? Please. See China, as mentioned by Contrarian. And also see that GM immediately wanted to cut their own deal with the same Russians. This is a whale-sized red herring.

    All in all, the U.S. Embassy in Berlin appears to be quite uninformed in those cables. A collection of news clippings.

  • avatar

    I, for one, am very happy to see Wikileaks reveal this type of information.  The US Government has been acting on our behalf while telling citizens one story and doing something different.  It is time for the Government to work FOR the people again,
    I am looking forward to their revelation of a certain US Bank’s crooked business operations.
    It is time for the US Government and US Businesses to live up to the ideals of America – not being the cheating bullies of the world that they have become.

  • avatar

    “… Opel may well have been happy…”
    I think you mean Magna instead of Opel.

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