BUSINESS POLITICS Berlin’s ‘Unwelcome Gift’ for Kuka

The German government is trying to thwart a potential Chinese takeover of robotics maker Kuka -- but German industry leaders said the intervention was unnecessary and could be bad for business.
Fears abound of a foreign takeover but some say it could be good for Germany's Kuka.


German business leaders voiced criticism of the government’s move this week to head off a Chinese takeover of Augsburg-based robotics maker Kuka. The government intervened this week, saying it was trying to find a different buyer for Kuka which would block a sale to Chinese appliance maker Midea. The €4.5 billion, or $5 billion, offer was announced two weeks ago.

"There are efforts to formulate an alternative offer. Whether that materializes, we will see," German Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel said on Wednesday. Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper had reported that Mr. Gabriel was trying to arrange an offer by German or European firms to prevent the sale to Midea.

The chancellor’s office is coordinating efforts by the foreign ministry and economics ministry in the matter, government sources said. A government spokeswoman said Chancellor Angela Merkel had been informed of the operation.

But in a visit to Berlin on Wednesday, Daimler Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche said he saw no danger in the Chinese company’s offer.

We are a very export-oriented industry in a highly interdependent world economy. Patrick Schwarzkopf,, VDMA German engineering association

“There is no evidence that the proposition, if it were implemented, would represent a risk,” said Mr. Zetsche, who also heads the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, or ACEA.

He said the auto industry had not experienced problems in the past with companies or suppliers with Chinese shareholders in Germany. He emphasized that those were his personal views and he was not speaking on behalf of Daimler or ACEA.

Sources in the German business community said the economics ministry seemed to be forging ahead without being asked for help. One called Berlin’s intervention “a kind of unwelcome gift.”

Business sources also said the move appeared to be proof of “creeping social democratization” in the German government, which for decades has stood as an advocate for open markets. The ruling coalition consists of Ms. Merkel's conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats of Mr. Gabriel.

Now in moving to stop a takeover of Kuka, they say, the government seems to be changing its position.

Germany needs foreign investments, said foreign trade expert Volker Treier of the German Association of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, or DIHK. “German companies have already set up production facilities and plants worth nearly €60 billion in China, while the Chinese have only invested €2 billion in Germany,” said Mr. Treier.

The VDMA German engineering association said open markets on both sides are an “essential precondition for cross-border investments.” VDMA expert Patrick Schwarzkopf said: “We are a very export-oriented industry in a highly interdependent world economy.”

Still, Mr. Gabriel received backing from his own ranks. In principle, politics ought not interfere in company decisions, said Bernd Westphal, economics spokesman for the Social Democrats. But Kuka holds “strategic importance for European industry,” he added.

Another senior SPD lawmaker, Hubertus Heil, said German companies should “not only be users, but also suppliers of Industry 4.0 technology.” It would “not be bad if there were least a German, or a European offer.”

Michael Fuchs is a deputy chair in the parliamentary group of the chancellor’s center-right Christian Democrats and their Bavarian allies in the Christian Social Union. He wouldn’t say whether he thought an alternative European offer for Kuka was desirable.

Germany thrives in open markets and modern technologies, he noted.

“(But) it is important that this openness not be a one-way street. And that goes with respect to China,” he said, alluding to obstacles to investment in the People’s Republic.


 Klaus Stratmann is the deputy bureau chief of Handelsblatt in Berlin and covers the energy market. To contact the author: [email protected]