The Germans do not want to change, but change they will

It's easier to get hold of local currency on a bank holiday in Alma-Ata than it is in Weimar on a Friday
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NORMAN FOSTER'S crystalline dome has been superimposed on the pompous Berlin Reichstag. The startling accretion is an outward sign of shifting political style in Germany; a symbol of a more relaxed approach to the Nazi past and a fresh confidence about the future. The latest fashionable slur to cast on someone you find worthy or predictable is to describe them as bundesrepublikanisch, as in "they are just so Federal Republic". It is a delightfully wicked description of a caste of Germans whose attitudes, habits and even dress sense embody the well-behaved complacency of the post-war German state.

But Berlin makes a difference. It challenges assumptions and disrupts current apathies. The city seems to have more building sites than existing buildings, more diversions than straight roads. The centre looks as if it should have a big ribbon tied around it, with a dignitary lined up all ready to cut it and declare the new Berlin open for business.

Next month, Chancellor Schroder will complete the government's move from Bonn, hoping that Berlin will offer him a personal second start. His glad, confident warning after sweeping Grandfather Kohl from power last autumn has proved to be short-lived. Confidence in his red-green coalition is not high. He lost the left-wing finance minister, Oskar Lafontaine, earlier this year, in still- unexplained circumstances. German unemployment remains high and the mood in the old East Germany is especially sullen.

As it did for Tony Blair, the war in Kosovo provided Gerhard Schroder with a suspension of normal political business. Ambivalence about the use of force, and argument about Germany's role in a Nato out-of-area mission, dominated public debate. Wars detract from internal problems, but they do not resolve them.

Mr Schroder knows that he is vulnerable to the revival of the pre-Kosovo accusations that Germany is drifting rudderless under his leadership. He took his critics by surprise when he responded by announcing that he intended to cut taxes, savage the share of GDP spent by the state and reform the pensions system to encourage greater self-reliance. This embrace of Thatcherite principles was so striking that it caused The Daily Telegraph's proprietor, Conrad Black, to muse that if such wonders were to come to pass in Europe's largest economy, maybe the single currency wouldn't be such a bad thing after all.

But what does Mr Schroder really want? Dealing with this most enigmatic and changeable of leaders prompted the greens to invent a critical new verb, "schrodern", meaning to set off in one direction, only to change tack at the first sign of resistance from big business or wobble in public opinion.

The promised retreat from nuclear energy resulted in a row over contractual agreements with other countries. A planned eco-tax on petrol has been minimised, to placate drivers and car manufacturers. The pledge to allow foreigners in Germany dual nationality - and thus the right to vote and take public office - was watered down when the government feared a backlash. The giddy switch of emphasis by Mr Schroder is deeply disorienting for the German public, which tends to tell pollsters that it is in favour of reform until it is faced with the prospect of it.

The admiring rhetoric of Vorsprung durch Technik leads foreigners to overlook the essentially conservative nature of German society. Regulation impels people to do things at certain times, and imposes an orderliness on daily life. Some of the results are welcome. Germans do not find the Heineken advert funny - the one based on the sheer improbability that different utility companies would confer with each other rather than each digging up the road in turn. German local councils compel the serial drillers to confer with each other by limiting the number of disruptions each year. Refuse is collected on time with penalties for those who fail to comply, with strict rules about bagging it properly, so that heaps of rotting garbage do not befoul city pavements as they do in urban Britain.

But the restrictions can also be maddening. Banks close at lunch time on Fridays. In Weimar, this year's European City of Culture, I spent the whole afternoon trying to change money to buy a theatre ticket. No one wanted euros, Eurocheques or credit cards. It is easier to get hold of local currency on a national holiday in Alma-Ata, than in Weimar on an ordinary Friday.

Department stores are fighting a wearisome battle against the long-lamented restrictions on shopping hours. When I left Berlin in 1992, the law on opening hours was the big subject of debate. Seven years on, the first shops have only just risked Sunday opening. The degree of consensus in the German political system - extravagantly admired by misguided British adherence of proportional representation - counteracts momentum towards change by creating coalitions at every level of government, accompanied by the inevitable backroom deals and trade-offs.

The post-war constitution reflects the attitudes of the Federal Republic's founders, back in 1949. Many of its ordinances are already undermined by technological advance. The Basic Law still forbids the sale of Hitler's Mein Kampf, although anyone with an interest in the Fuhrer's rants can simply download the book from a number of suspiciously helpful Internet sites. Mr Schroder discovered that the constitution can act as a brake on bold reformist ideas; the German state placed undiscriminating emphasis on families with children, so a multimillionaire with a brood enjoys the same generous tax breaks as a manual worker. The Government failed to persuade the constitutional court to change this plank of state philosophy, rooted in the Adenauer era.

In the end, the constitution will respond to a shift in public attitudes. But that entails a long fight and demands strong leadership and an ox- like determination, a quality the Chancellor has not yet proved that he possesses. Like his model, Tony Blair, he is an impatient politician, an outsider in his own party, and is anxious to make a difference. His uncertainties raise a question about Third Way government everywhere; is it merely another phrase for perpetual motion, the balancing of every step left with one to the right? Or is there a bottom line, a sense of direction and broad purpose, that can be sustained?

Mr Blair's experience suggests that a confident leader blessed with good fortune can Schroder his way through the first term of office with few ill-effects, so long as the joins are less visible, the lurches less sudden, than those of his less secure German counterparts. But neither leader, however adept he may be at amazing feats of elasticity, can afford in the longer term to neglect the importance of a clear line of intention. We have no other handrail to steer us through the sheer muddle of modern politics.