Fiat Pledges to Keep Opel's Factories

The management of Italian carmaker Fiat (FIA.MI) is surprised at the negative reaction from German politicians and trade union leaders to its plan to take over ailing automaker Opel.

"It has been made clear that the debts of the Fiat group won't be brought into the marriage," an insider based in Fiat's home town of Turin who is familiar with the plans told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Sunday. "This legacy won't burden the project. The problematic commercial vehicles division will be kept out of the talks. This is solely about the Fiat car division."

The insider denied reports that a letter of intent between Fiat and Opel would be signed as early as Tuesday, April 28. "There is no such document. And Fiat has not yet held talks with Opel shareholders," the insider said. Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne said on Friday that Fiat had not yet submitted an offer to buy a stake in Opel.

Opel's works council chief Klaus Franz last week announced that the union would protest against a takeover. "Fiat has no money," he said, adding that Fiat just wanted to secure German government aid. "They want a rescue for Fiat, not for Opel."

The initiative for a deal between Fiat and Opel didn't come from the German government or either of the car companies, the insider said, explaining that it came instead from Opel's parent company, General Motors (GM). "The Americans approached Fiat when Rick Wagoner was still GM boss," said the insider. "They presented a very radical action plan for Opel and were evidently urgently seeking a solution to GM's problem in Europe." Wagoner has since been replaced by Fritz Henderson.

So far, all Fiat's contacts in the matter had been made via the German Economy Ministry, the insider said. Fiat discussed a takeover with Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg who stressed the need for a solution that didn't hit Opel's workforce too hard. Fiat's Marchionne had promised that the takeover would follow European standards.

Guarantee for Opel Plants

In doing so, Fiat had guaranteed the continued operations of Opel's four assembly plants in Germany, the insider said, adding that this did not mean that the current capacity of the plants could be guaranteed.

Volkswagen (VOWG.DE) was the role model in this regard. "Ferdinand Piech has shown that different brands such as VW, Audi, Skoda and Seat can be brought under one roof, to mutual benefit," said one source in Berlin. "In Fiat's plan, Opel will retain its identity and its position in the German market. There will be additional common platforms but the structures will remain independent."

The Italians are irritated at the nationalist overtones that have crept into the debate about Opel's future. They point out that Germans occupy two of seven top positions at Fiat—chief engineer and production chief.

Fiat is ready to compromise on the name of a new merged group. "The new company can be called FiatOpel or OpelFiat, that's not important," the Turin source said. This wasn't about national vanities, he said, but about an intelligent European industrial project.

That view is in line with what Marchionne has been saying. He repeatedly stresses that he left Italy at age 14 and spent much of his life in the US and Canada. He says it doesn't matter what national flag waves over a European project, and that Opel's crisis may provide an opportunity to forge a major European auto group with a promising future.

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