Crossed lines on the road to reunification

The famous German efficiency should make light of moving the capital to Berlin. In fact, even getting a phone line installed is a major triumph
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There are still 43 days to go, but the excitement in this Sleeping Beauty of a capital is already palpable. On 19 April Chancellor Gerhard Schroder will stand under the new glass cupola of the Reichstag and proclaim the dawn of the Berlin Republic. The eight-year project to bring the government back to its rightful home should then be complete.

The preparations for this historic moment have left nothing to chance. An army unit was summoned to check the debating chamber's sound system at all conceivable decibel levels. The hundreds of mirrors that will shower daylight on the nation's statesmen have been tested individually. They work, though some observers claim to have detected an almost imperceptible pink glow at the edges.

Norman Foster's puffed-up eagle - known to detractors as the "Fat Hen" - has landed safely and been tethered to the wall. So important are its precise dimensions, that they had engaged the whole country in anguished debate for years. But now that it has been mounted in its proper place, the planners can focus on the really important matters, such as where to put the thousands of people arriving from Bonn.

For Mr Schroder's grand gesture, like many of his actions as Chancellor so far, are as heavily laden with symbolism as they are devoid of substance. After his speech, he will return to Bonn, because it is from there that the country will continue to be governed for the foreseeable future.

Mr Schroder is lucky. His Chancellery, opposite the Reichstag on the waterlogged "elbow" of the river Spree, will not be ready till next year, but a splendid villa in the diplomatic ghetto of Grunewald is being converted in accordance with his wife's specifications. Upstairs will live the first family, downstairs will work about eight officials. The other 200 or so of his present staff will have to find desk space somewhere else.

It has been decreed that after the summer recess, Parliament and most of the ministries will move to Berlin. But not to their new abodes. Many buildings are not ready, and will not be completed for another year. Only last week, MPs were informed of yet another delay to the office block that is to be home to two-thirds of them. The latest moving-in time is 2001.

There have, inevitably, been problems beyond the planners' control. Berlin's marshy geography had been underestimated, leading to floodings and cave- ins. The road tunnel running from one end of the government quarter to the other collapsed, delaying this vital link for a year.

Other delays, though, are harder to explain. For the capital of one of the world's leading industrial nations, Berlin is awfully difficult to approach. The only high-speed rail link peters out in Hanover. The parallel motorway, which already existed before reunification, is still being rebuilt, with speed limits of 50mph all the way to the former border of West Germany. The city's air links have, if anything, got worse since the year of the miracles. There are now no direct flights connecting Berlin to the US, for instance.

But in the age of the information super-highway, a government does not need roads and rail to transmit its commands. All it needs is a telephone line to issue marching orders to the army, for example, who are set to stay in Bonn, 400 miles from their minister. Or a fast modem linking it to the database of the security services, who will not move from their HQ in a Munich suburb.

That should not be a problem. "We have rewired the whole of the East," said a spokesman for Deutsche Telekom, which has the monopoly on installing phone lines. "There will be no problems." Perhaps not. The Independent on Sunday contacted the spokesman when, six weeks after informing the company of our modest move from Bonn to Berlin, no numbers were forthcoming. Applications had been filed, a 10-page form had been filled in and signed in as many places as required, and still Telekom was stalling.

By his company's standards, the spokesman acted quickly. In less than a week, he came through with three numbers. That was on Friday, 12 February. They were to come the following Tuesday to install everything. They did not come. "You weren't in," the spokesman informed me angrily, when I called him on my mobile. To the Soviet-style bureaucrats who run Telekom, the customer is always wrong. Another call went out to the office of Ron Sommer, Telekom's chairman, and eventually a man with a screwdriver was dispatched. He feigned not to understand the wiring. "Fix up a new appointment," he said.

With the help of the company's press offices in Bonn and Berlin, and the chairman's office, a very nice man called from Telekom headquarters in Bonn. A search through the files had uncovered the source of the cock- up - the job had been ordered twice by different departments. He was terribly sorry and promised a refund.

The man with the screwdriver returned the following week. Thanks to his exertions, we can now use one of our three numbers. He also fixed a fax line with a fourth number, and gifted us a fifth number, which is unobtainable. With the three lines we left behind in Bonn, which have still not been switched off, this newspaper is the proud owner of eight phone numbers, two of which work.

I have tried to reach the nice man in Bonn to get it sorted out, but he had given me the wrong number. So if Herr Niebuhr sees this, could he please call me on my mobile. After that, maybe he should get cracking with that huge pile of forms bearing the signature of one G Schroder.