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Brussels to call Opel summit

Publication date: 28 May 2009

The European Commission is to organise an urgent summit of industry and economics ministers from European Union countries that have an interest in the disposal of GM‘s Opel division.

The move follows a letter sent by Herman van Rompuy, Belgian prime minister, to the Commission on Tuesday in which he asked officials to ensure that any resolution would be fair to all countries in which the US carmaker has operations.

The UK has also been lobbying to prevent the German government from pledging to protect domestic jobs at the expense of those at GM’s Vauxhall plants in the UK. Lord Mandelson, business secretary, had phone conversations with top GM executives on Tuesday, with the UK government keen to ensure that German election-year pressures do not become a determining factor in the outcome.

The Belgian region of Flanders, where Opel’s Antwerp factory is based, is also facing elections in coming weeks. The Antwerp plant employs 2,600 workers and produces more than 120,000 cars a year. It recently had been picked as the production site for a new range of sports-utility vehicles from 2010 to overcome falling sales of Opel’s Astra model.

Politicians in Flanders have looked on aghast as Magna, now seen as the most likely bidder for GM Europe, unveiled plans that would downgrade the plant to a subcontracting role or close it altogether.

By contrast, rival bidder Fiat had promised to keep Antwerp as part of the group, according to Kris Peeters, the Flemish premier, who also signed the letter to the Commission.

“We should not have a situation where everyone is looking to outdo each other, where Germany comes up with a solution and then we follow,” he told the state broadcaster on Wednesday.

Mr van Rompuy’s letter was sent to Jose Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, and Günter Verheugen, industry commissioner, as well as German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Mr Barroso said the commission was following the situation carefully and was in contact with all the member states involved.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Mr Verheugen confirmed that efforts were under way to set up another round table meeting, although he could not currently give a date for this.

Industry ministers from more than half-a-dozen EU countries first met for joint discussions, facilitated by the commission, on troubles with Opel in mid-March. At that stage, there were concerns that information was being made available to Germany that was not available to some other countries.

The ministers agreed at the time that no national measures should be taken without prior information and co-ordination with Brussels and other involved countries.

Officials in the commission’s competition unit – which oversees application of the EU’s state aid rules – are also understood to be watching the situation carefully. In a statement two weeks ago, three EU commissioners – including Neelie Kroes, competition commissioner and Mr Verheugen – stressed that national support measures would have to comply fully with state aid and internal market rules.

Source: The Financial Times

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