How bad are auto sales in Europe?

They're this bad: Ford (NYSE: F) posted a sharp 7.3% year-over-year sales decline in Europe in the first quarter -- and gained market share.

Ford's struggles are far from unique. Nearly all of the automakers doing business in Europe are facing sales declines and steep drops in earnings. Of the mass-market automakers, only Volkswagen (OTC: VLKAY) managed a (tiny) sales increase for the quarter. Not only are total sales down, in some cases sharply -- Fiat (OTC: FIATY) sales were down a shocking 26% -- but pricing has been very weak. Put simply, automakers have had to offer big discounts just to keep sales going. That has eroded margins, hitting profits hard.

But few automakers are struggling in Europe more than General Motors (NYSE: GM), which just can't seem to find any answers.

A big effort to fix a longtime problem
GM's 10% first-quarter drop in European sales may not seem awful in context, but it comes on top of years of decline. The General's problems in Europe go far deeper than the current economic slump. Adam Opel AG, GM's European subsidiary, is a very sick company burdened with too many factories, too-rich labor deals, and a level of sales that won't come close to supporting either of the former anytime soon. Even in good times, it can't seem to turn a profit consistently.

Sound familiar? It should: Opel's problems are similar to the ones that plagued Detroit for years and led to GM's bankruptcy during the economic crisis. But Opel is proving much harder to revive.

Opel has been losing money for over a decade -- over $15 billion worth since 1999 -- but last year, GM CEO Dan Akerson made it clear that he was fed up with years of underperformance. GM has repeatedly tried to turn around Opel without success. The most recent restructuring, begun shortly after GM emerged from bankruptcy in 2009, looked for a while like it could be a success, but the company slid back into the red in the second half of 2011.

Akerson responded to last year's losses by doubling down: He put his right-hand man, vice chairman Steve Girsky, in charge of restoring Opel to profitability once and for all. Akerson also named several of his most able lieutenants to Opel's board, including CFO Dan Ammann and Mary Barra, GM's product chief, and replaced GM Europe's longtime president with German-born rising star Karl-Friedrich Stracke.

Girsky was charged with getting a turnaround plan in place as soon as possible. Reports -- as well as some of the executives involved, including Stracke -- suggested that a plan would be in place within "a couple of months."

That was in mid-February. It has been a "couple of months," and no plan is in sight. What happened?

What's taking so long, GM?
What happened is that the situation has so far proven even more intractable than expected. What needs to happen is fairly clear: Opel needs to close two or three factories; sharp cuts need to be made to Opel's salaried work force; and Opel's product line needs to be more tightly integrated with GM's global product plan.

Sounds simple on virtual paper, but the reality has proven complicated. Opel's union contracts prevent GM from unilaterally closing any factories until after 2014, but the longer GM waits, the larger the losses become. Even then, plant closings will be messy: Unions in places like Germany have significant government support, and no politician wants to be the one to sign off on the loss of thousands of jobs.

Girsky himself warned last month that the restructuring of Opel was likely to unfold over an extended period. So far, though, GM has little to show for what are said to be intense efforts,  aside from a new alliance with troubled French automaker PSA Peugeot Citroen (OTC: PEUGY) that raises more questions than it answers.

Meanwhile, it's likely that Opel will post yet another big loss when GM reports first-quarter earnings next month. That won't help the company's stock price -- but the appearance of a truly viable turnaround plan for Opel might. Will we see one?

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