BlackRock's Merz Says German Identity Is Key in Post-Merkel Era

(Bloomberg) -- BlackRock Inc.’s Friedrich Merz, who’s running to succeed Angela Merkel as head of Germany’s Christian Democrats, said he intends to counter the rise of populism with a push to emphasize national identity.

In his first press conference since returning to politics, the longtime Merkel antagonist also criticized her government’s response to French reform proposals for the euro area as insufficient and said that holding the currency union together is Europe’s biggest challenge.

Merz, 62, said he’s confident that if elected chairman of the Christian Democratic Union in December he could work with Merkel, who’s staying on as chancellor. Yet he struck a socially conservative tone that differs from her approach as he called for the CDU’s renewal.

“One piece of our party’s modernization must be that national identity and traditional values have a firm place in our thinking and our actions, particularly at a time of migration and globalization,” Merz said Wednesday in Berlin. “We can’t allow that left and right fringes divide our society.”

Race Is On

Merz has served as supervisory board chairman of BlackRock Inc.’s German asset management unit since 2016 and held various company posts after losing out in a power struggle with Merkel more than a decade ago.

To lead the CDU, he’s vying with the party’s general secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a Merkel protegee who’s considered the chancellor’s favored candidate, and Health Minister Jens Spahn, a critic of Merkel’s open-borders migration policy.

Merz’s candidacy signals a bid to shift the CDU toward a more socially conservative stance after many of Merkel’s critics said she moved the party too far to the left, losing core voters. An ally of the party’s pro-business wing, Merz also heads a public-policy group committed to boosting ties between the U.S. and Germany.

After dominating German politics since World War II, the CDU is being squeezed by the polarization that’s driving voters both to the Green party and the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany.

Refugee Crisis

Hobbled by a refugee crisis that provoked a nationalist backlash, Merkel bowed out as CDU chairwoman on Monday and said she won’t seek a fifth term as chancellor in 2021.

From his perch outside politics, Merz has repeatedly criticized Merkel’s policies and remains popular in parts of the CDU. He’s known for once presenting a plan to simplify Germany’s income-tax system so it would “fit on a beer coaster.”

Merkel made an enemy of Merz in 2002, two years into her run as CDU chairwoman, when she ousted him as parliamentary caucus leader. With the Social Democrats in power at the time, that made Merkel the opposition leader, a position she used as a springboard to the chancellery three years later.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.