After his initial refusal to recognise the resignation of the European Commission as a "crisis", he performed a U-turn overnight. By the time he arrived in Vienna yesterday morning he was ready to proclaim that Jacques Santer, Commission President, had to go. "We must show our ability to act fast," Mr Schroder said. He did not offer any candidates for the job, beyond ruling out Mr Santer.
"We must show we are able to draw from the resignation of the Commission conclusions in terms of substance and personnel," the Chancellor added, calling for "more transparency, more openness and internal and external controls on the use of funds".
But Germany is burdened with the conflicting tasks of organising the EU summit in Berlin next week, and of filling the vacuum in Brussels. As Mr Schroder shuffled his priorities, he was in danger of failing on both fronts. Bonn still wants the Commission to soldier on until after the summit, so that all governments can concentrate on EU institutional reforms. In Mr Schroder's absence, his cabinet reiterated yesterday that Germany wanted to clinch in Berlin an agreement on farm subsidies.
With the Commission now urging a rapid end to the power vacuum, it seems likely Germany will organise a special summit of heads of government in April to decide on the succession. Mr Schroder indicated in Athens yesterday that if a new president is appointed then, it should be a permanent replacement rather than a caretaker who would stand down at the end of the year.
There are two scenarios. One is to appoint a new president in weeks who would steer the Commission, made up of most of the existing team, until December. The other is that an entire new set of commissioners would be appointed soon and reappointed to serve for five years from 2000. The choice is complicated by the fact that MEPs will want to vet all 20 Commission members.
Another complication is that it is still not clear whether legally a commissioner who resigns can, under the the EU treaty, be reappointed by his or her government.
Romano Prodi, former Italian prime minister, is emerging as front-runner for the top job. He has received signs of endorsement from London and Germany. As a southern European, he would meet one unofficial requirement of the job.
Javier Solana of Spain, secretary-general of Nato and a socialist, is also considered a strong candidate.
Mr Schroder said he would be happy if a joint proposal on the new president could be presented shortly after the Berlin summit. "We must make it clear ... the EU remains capable to act, that member-states, through compromise, succeed in [finalising] the financial architecture that will stand firm for the coming years," he said.
Behind all this lurks uncertainty. The German sense of urgency about a breakthrough in Berlin is not shared by other European governments. And as Mr Schroder is juggling with several European balls he is being distracted by debilitating rows in his own government.
After the the trouble with Oskar Lafontaine last week, it was the Greens' turn to cause problems yesterday. "Red-Green as a reform project is dead," said Jurgen Trittin, the second- most powerful Green in the government.
Correction: In an article carried in later editions of The Independent on Tuesday headlined "Costly Fiascos" we mistakenly referred to Essex University as being in receipt of pounds 40,000 via the European Commission's Leonardo da Vinci vocational training programme.
The actual recipient was in fact Exeter University and not the University of Essex. We apologise for any confusion this has caused.Reuse content