Leading article: A bad result for Ms Merkel, and for Europe

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The Independent Online

It is a tribute to the chancellorship of Angela Merkel that the political and economic health of the European Union is now routinely gauged by the strength of Germany's government. The awkward corollary, however, is that if Ms Merkel's Christian Democratic Union falters, that perception of weakness is projected on to the whole of the EU. This is why the defeat suffered by the CDU in regional elections in the state of Baden-Württemberg at the weekend resonates far beyond that state.

Ms Merkel, it must be said, has suffered more than her share of bad luck since her re-election. The coalition she had sought with the free-market FDP has not worked nearly as well as her first-term coalition with the Social Democrats, the inexperience of its leader, Guido Westerwelle, proving a liability. The euro bailouts for Greece and Ireland, and now the prospect of one for Portugal, have angered German voters, who fear throwing good money after bad.

Then a month ago, Ms Merkel lost her defence minister, the popular Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, over a plagiarised doctoral thesis. This left her government without a high-profile Bavarian and, more to the point, without the charisma he brought to his job. Hard on the heels of this setback came the the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan.

For the German Chancellor, this far-off chain of catastrophes could not have arrived at a worse point. Regional elections were barely two weeks away and the nuclear issue already loomed large. Ms Merkel responded by suspending her decision to extend the life of Germany's nuclear power stations, but to no avail. There are four such plants in Baden-Württemberg and the anti-nuclear Greens were riding high. They are now set to control Germany's prosperous second-largest state, which has been run by the CDU for 58 years.

Party allies offered Ms Merkel a show of support yesterday, but the CDU's sway at the centre is damaged, and with it her own authority. That frailty is likely to make Germany even more cautious, at the very time when the EU and the world need it to be bolder.