Germany’s federal government is introducing electronic signatures for its employees, a step it hopes will help make the security procedure generally accepted in the country. More than 200,000 employees of ministries and agencies will be able to sign electronic documents using a chip card with an encrypted key, giving them the same legal weight as paper documents with a handwritten signature, the federal Cabinet said in a statement Thursday.

The measure builds on legislation making digital signatures legally binding, which entered force in Germany last year, in concert with an effort to introduce such laws throughout the European Union.

Employees will be supplied with chip cards and readers between now and 2005, when a broad-ranging project to put all possible government services online is slated for completion. About a quarter of the 400 targeted services — including, for example, bidding for federal procurement contracts — will require electronic signatures, the government said. The one-time set-up cost, including hardware, is estimated at