BERLIN (Reuters) - German conservative Friedrich Merz set out an unapologetically pro-business stall for his candidacy to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel as leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU), describing himself as a reform-minded pro-European.
In his first news conference since announcing his candidacy, the 62-year-old businessman and lawyer promised renewal for a party that has tacked resolutely towards the centre over Merkel's 18 years as party leader.
"I am a convinced economic liberal, a social conservative and a socially engaged person," he told reporters on Wednesday. "That's what has made the CDU strong."
Among the tasks of a CDU he led would be reclaiming voters who had deserted it for far right parties and coming up with a response to French President Emmanuel Macron's proposals for deepening European integration.
"He deserves a more substantial response from Germany," Merz said. "The biggest challenge for Europe in coming years is holding the euro zone together."
Merz, who quit politics a decade after losing an inner-party power struggle with Merkel, is one of the three declared candidates for the post, the holder of which would be in pole position to become Germany's next chancellor.
Merkel has declined to back any of them, though many believe she would have more chance of succeeding in her aim of remaining chancellor for another three years if her close ally, CDU general secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, dubbed the "mini-Merkel", triumphed in the succession race.
But Merz was careful not to rule out working with Merkel, who has dominated European politics for 13 years, shaping the bloc's response to the euro zone debt crisis and the 2015 immigration crisis that ultimately proved her undoing.
"I'm sure that Angela Merkel and I can work together under these changed conditions," he said.
Merz, widely seen as the candidate of German business, said his current job as non-executive chairman of asset manager Blackrock's German division would not create a conflict of interest. Blackrock "aren't carpetbaggers," he added, distancing himself from the kind of predatory capitalism that is unpopular in socially minded Germany.
A shift to the right could strain Merkel's ruling coalition in other ways. The Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in the ruling coalition in Berlin, might chafe at governing alongside a party led less clearly from the centre.
Earlier on Wednesday, a survey showed that a slim majority of Germans would like the SPD to leave the government.
(Writing by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Michelle Martin and Mark Heinrich)