BERLIN — If there is a single image that symbolizes the revival of Berlin as unified Germany's new capital, it may be the sight of the Reichstag, the seat of the pre-World War II German parliament.
Only a stone's throw from former East Berlin, the hulking stone building is now enveloped by scaffolding and surrounded by cranes. One day the Reichstag will house the German parliament again. Yet the question remains: when?
It was a split decision that determined the move of the capital from Bonn to Berlin. On the one hand, the reunification treaty of Aug. 31, 1990, states clearly that "the capital of Germany is Berlin." But the treaty goes on to say that "the question of the seat of the parliament and the government will be decided after the establishment of German unity."
Nearly a year later, the first parliament of reunified Germany voted, 338 to 320, to make Berlin the seat of the legislature. It just wasn't clear when that would happen.
Housing Minister Klaus Topfer, point man in Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government for the move, insists that there's "no reason to doubt the move of the government in 1998." But he allows that the move may not be completed then.
Meanwhile, a short distance away from the Reichstag on the Potsdamer Platz, Daimler Benz, the luxury automaker, is striving for a 1998 completion date for its office and retail complex - just in case some ministry will need to rent space.
The chancellor himself has publicly said, "The timetable stands." But he has been heard hinting about the year 2000 or later. And there has been talk of a merely "symbolic" move from the Bundestag, the German parliament, in Bonn into the new Reichstag plenary hall in May 1999.
Then there's the question of the chancellor's office, not expected to be ready before 2001. The chancellor might have to rent for a while.
The capital question is playing out at a time when Mr. Kohl is trying to push through the parliament an austerity program that would cut the budget deficit and reduce public debt. Since cost estimates for the government move run as high as 100 billion deutsche marks ($65 billion), it's not surprising that public opinion is strongly opposed to the move.
A recent poll conducted by the Forsa institute in Berlin found only 31 percent of respondents in favor of the move as planned, with 42 percent opposed and another 21 percent calling for postponement.
But Forsa director Manfred Gullner warns against taking the polling numbers - including his own - too seriously. He compares the situation to the controversy over the introduction of rearmament and universal male conscription during the 1950s. Popular sentiment was strongly opposed, but then-Chancellor Konrad Adenauer pushed ahead and saw the necessary constitutional amendments through the Bundestag with strong support.
For many, the larger issue is the credibility of the government. "Bonn was always discussed as a provisional capital," Mr. Gullner says. "There was always a lot of emotion in the West over Berlin. After 40 years of talking about Berlin as the real capital, they can't suddenly decide to stay in Bonn."
Establishing its capital in Bonn right after the war was a way of anchoring the fledgling German democracy in the West, as well as affording Chancellor Adenauer easy access to his country home along the Rhine. Some opponents of the move to Berlin have questioned why Kohl, who is committed to a united Europe, wants to move the capital 400 miles farther from Brussels.
Gllner responds by pointing out that Berlin is central to a Europe that "doesn't just stop at Hannover," but includes neighbors to the east.
"But when I think more deeply, historically Berlin makes sense as the capital," he says.
Political scientist Hellmut Wollmann of Berlin's Humboldt University makes a similar point. "We cannot turn back," he says. "When you look ahead into a time when 'Europe' includes Poland and other neighboring countries, Berlin is at the center."