Merkel’s Would-Be Successor Is a Real Conservative

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- With Chancellor Angela Merkel heading for her political exit, Germany is about to change. The direction of the change depends in large part on Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, Germany’s biggest political force. The contest to succeed the departing Merkel as CDU leader, set to play out early next month, provides important clues to what’s at stake.

The battle lines are drawn. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the party’s secretary general, personifies the continuation of Merkel’s moderate course — a strategy of occupying the political center so that the designations “center-right” and “center-left” lose their meaning. On this route, common sense, deliberation and compromise take the place of ideology. Two other leadership candidates, Friedrich Merz and Jens Spahn, stand for reclaiming the CDU’s conservative credentials.

Spahn is by appearances the more successful politician. At 38, he is health minister and a popular leader with an unbroken record of winning elections since the age of 24. Merz, 62, was forced out by Merkel as the CDU parliamentary faction chief in the early 2000s and left electoral politics in 2009.

Yet of the two conservative candidates, Merz is the true heavyweight. He hasn’t wasted the years since stepping aside and stands a better chance than Spahn of succeeding Merkel. A Merz-led CDU, and potentially a Merz-led Germany, would be starkly different from what the world has grown used to with Merkel.

Unlike Merkel, whose East German background made her a surprising leader for the CDU, Merz is deeply rooted in the party’s tradition, going back to the Weimar Republic. His grandfather, Josef Paul Sauvigny, was mayor of the town where Merz was born, Brilon in North Rhine-Westphalia, between 1917 and 1937. At first, Sauvigny represented the CDU’s political predecessor, the Center party, and then, after the Nazis banned it, apparently became a willing fellow-traveler who praised Hitler and had one of the town’s streets named after him.

Merz, the son of a judge and from his early years a member of the CDU’s youth wing, has shown no chagrin about his grandfather’s relatively brief tenure as mayor under the Nazi rule, but rather pride in his long run as a Center politician. (“So it happens in Germany: The nice grandpa can nevertheless be a Nazi,” Toralf Staud commented drily in the newspaper Die Zeit in 2004).

In an interview given in 2000, which has resurfaced since he threw his hat in the ring for CDU leader, Merz recalled his youthful self as a long-haired rebel on a motorcycle who smoked, drank and listened to the Doors. One of the interviewers later received a letter from one of Merz’s hometown buddies who contradicted the story, saying that Merz senior, the judge, would never have allowed his son anything but a conservative haircut, much less a motorcycle. 

Also unlike Merkel, who has paid lip service to conservative values but set Germany on a socially liberal path and allowed it to turn into a multicultural society, Merz is serious about conservatism. He is credited with coining the term “Leitkultur” in 2000, a word that’s in use today as a litmus test of allegiance to the CDU’s right wing. Roughly translated, it means “dominant culture” and is intended to be a statement that newcomers must assimilate. Merz talks unabashedly about the need to keep Christian values dominant in Germany and to keep the country’s alliances with other Western democracies grounded in them.

During his retirement from active politics, Merz got rich as a lawyer and board member in a series of large corporations. Currently, he’s chairman of the board at the German subsidiary of BlackRock Inc., which, he was quick to point out at a press conference on Wednesday, isn’t one of those hated private equity locusts but a trusted money manager for hundreds of thousands of private clients. One might best describe him as a professional lobbyist.

LobbyControl, an organization dedicated to fighting undue business influence, has warned of potential conflicts of interest as Merz reenters politics, and recalled a complaint he and eight other parliament members filed to Germany’s top court in 2007 to try to ban the disclosure of their additional sources of income. At the time, Merz held 11 jobs in addition to the parliamentary one. The complaint was thrown out, but Merz continued working closely with businesses and lobbying groups, backing, among other causes, a campaign by German energy companies against Merkel’s decision to phase out nuclear power.

Close ties to business is another long tradition among CDU politicians of which Merkel isn’t part, though her governments have been largely pro-business, earning criticism especially for their unwavering support of the scandal-ridden car industry.

Something else Merz has done while out of the parliament is lead Atlantik-Bruecke, a 500-member group dedicated to maintaining close ties between the German and U.S. establishments. Merz is a strong proponent of the German alliance with the U.S. and of a permissive European-American trade deal like the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which was discussed under President Barack Obama and eventually lost Merkel’s support because it was unpopular with German voters.

Merz’s pro-American stance on trade puts him peculiarly at odds with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. As he welcomed Trump’s ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, to an Atlantik-Bruecke event, Merz delivered an even harsher rebuke to the current U.S. trade policy than those heard from Merkel:

Let me be honest: A trade conflict between the United States and Europe benefits nobody. And a trade war that seems possible in these days would have disastrous consequences for our economies. However, one aspect of this conflict is also very clear: The European Union has the right to refuse to accept newly imposed punitive tariffs by the American government. Our counter reaction will always be moderate but unmistakable.

Merz is also a more confident public speaker than Merkel. His sharp analytical mind shines through as he delivers clear, to-the-point sentences without hedging or fudging. He’s not trying to obfuscate his agenda. When he talks of change and progress in the CDU, he means:

 • A return to a strongly pro-business agenda, which includes lowering taxes;
 • Conservative social values and requiring immigrants to assimilate;
 • A close engagement with the U.S. and a deeper integration than Merkel has been willing to advocate with other democracies in the European Union, especially France.

That clarity appeals to many CDU members. In his home state, a number of politicians who know Merz well are thrilled about his comeback. Whether he can cooperate with Merkel if he’s elected party leader is another matter; the direction he wants to set for the party would be deeply uncomfortable for her. Indeed, supporters of other parties on the right flank of German politics — the pro-business Free Democrats and the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany — are, according to one poll, especially happy to see Merz try to take over the CDU. 

The question party members will need to ask themselves in December is whether they want to live in Merkel’s Germany or in Merz’s. Even if they choose the latter, though, the party’s problems, which include historically low approval ratings in public opinion polls, won’t be over. Just as right-wing CDU supporters were defecting to the AfD during Merkel’s 13-year reign as chancellor, moderates will be abandoning the party for the increasingly popular Greens after a Merz takeover.

In today’s increasingly fractured politics, it’s hard for a big-tent party to remain relevant to the entire voter base that it’s come to perceive as its own. Whether it shifts to the left or to the right may, at the end, only mean losing touch with different clusters of supporters. That cannot be fixed with Merz’s cutting clarity of vision, just as it couldn’t be fixed with Merkel’s inclusiveness.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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