TATA Steel and German firm Thyssenkrupp have taken the first step towards a merger deal by signing a memorandum of understanding.
The companies said the move will lead to the creation of a leading European steel enterprise.
Merger talks started around 18 months ago after Tata decided not to sell its UK steel business.
The flat steel businesses of the two companies in Europe and the steel mill services of the Thyssenkrupp group will merge in the proposed 50:50 joint venture.
The companies employ around 48,000 workers, with Tata owning UK plants including at Shotton, which employs around 700 workers, and Port Talbot in South Wales, where 4,000 staff work.
Andrew Robb, chairman of Tata Steel Europe, said: "Today's announcement marks the latest step in building a future for Tata Steel's activities in Europe which is sustainable in every sense.
"Both Tata Steel Europe and Thyssenkrupp share a vision of supplying the most advanced quality products and services to customers in the world's most demanding markets.
"The combination of our two businesses would provide the strongest possible foundation for achieving this vision, creating a global leader for the long term."
Unions cautiously welcomed the announcement, but will seek commitments on jobs and investment.
The news followed pension changes which were agreed by Tata's employees.
Business Secretary Greg Clark said the announcement was an "important step" for the steel industry.
He said: "The Government has been working hard with the unions to secure a sustainable future for Tata Steel in the UK, its 4,000 employees at the Port Talbot site and its supply chain.
"Today's agreement between Tata Steel and Thyssenkrupp is an important next step in establishing their shared ambition for Port Talbot as a world-class steel manufacturer, with a focus on quality, technology and innovation."
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