When time stood still
Published in Newsroom.co.nz (Wellington), 6 April 2021
If you want to get an idea of the European Union’s ability to make good decisions and implement them swiftly, you could look at its Covid vaccination rollout.
But if that is too depressing, you could also consider the farce around Europe’s Daylight Savings Time.
Admittedly, whether Europeans adjust their clocks twice a year is not one of those big questions upon which the future of the continent depends.
But the way in which EU institutions and national governments are dealing with this seemingly straightforward question reveals a lot about the functioning of the bloc. It is European politics in a nutshell.
To provide a bit of historical background, various European countries introduced daylight saving time (DST) in the 1970s. It was the age of the oil shock, and the idea was to save energy. New Zealand, by the way, did the same with the Time Act 1974.
Just as in New Zealand, DST remained controversial in Europe, and for the same reasons. The enjoyment of longer summer nights versus the inconvenience of manually setting the clocks twice a year. Or the alleged health benefits from more vitamin D to the alleged mental health problems arising from occasionally finding oneself in a new time zone.
The difference between the EU and New Zealand, at least when it comes to time matters, is size. From Spain to Poland and Scandinavia, the Central European Time Zone covers longitudes more than twice as far apart as they ideally ought to be.
The other difference is New Zealand can easily make decisions on its time, whereas it is much more complicated in the EU, because in 1996 the EU stepped in to harmonise the various daylight savings times across its members.
That arrangement might have continued forever, had the European Parliament not seized the initiative in 2018. In a bid to demonstrate its usefulness to voters, the parliamentarians tasked the EU Commission with revisiting DST rules in Europe. This is where the EU’s new time travails began.
The EU Commission started an online poll open to all its people. As could have been expected, it failed to attract large participation. Of more than half a billion Europeans, fewer than five million participated – and two thirds of respondents were German, who probably thought participation was compulsory.
To say that the Commission’s poll was not precisely representative, would be an understatement.
Well, those who did participate in the poll turned out to be those most annoyed by DST. 84 percent of participants were in favour of abolishing DST.
Still, since the EU is a thoroughly democratic institution, it felt bound to follow the wish of the majority. Well, somehow. In March 2019, the EU Parliament voted with a two thirds majority to abolish Daylight Savings Time from 2021.
The only thing the EU Parliament did not decide was which time should prevail after that: The standard Central European Time all-year round? Or an all-year round daylight savings time?
In a true spirit of subsidiarity, that question was left to individual member states.
As could have been expected, it turned out to be impossible to establish cross-country agreement.
Take the idea of all-year DST, for example. Such a decision would see the sun rise in Cologne, Germany at 9.35am in early January – and at 5.17am in mid-June. Meanwhile, in Stockholm, Sweden sunrises would range from 9.44am in winter to 3.30am in summer.
With such extremely late or early mornings, no wonder national governments in an already geographically large time zone would not have wanted to make matters more extreme by adding an extra hour all year long.
But wait, it gets better. Because now that the EU Parliament had passed the decision to member states, those member states found it uncomfortable making these decisions themselves. The German government, for example, declared its top priority was to ensure that there would not be too many different time zones in Europe. That is reasonable but does not help to determine whether to use DST or not.
This would have been the time to establish consensus between the governments of the EU’s 27 members. And that is the way in which it is supposed to work by law.
For any new EU directive to become law, it needs to be prepared by the EU Commission, passed by the EU Parliament and then approved by the EU Council, i.e. the representatives of national governments.
But what if the EU Council just forgets about a matter?
At least that is what seems to have happened to the plans for an abolition of DST in Europe.
When Germany chaired the EU Council in the second half of 2020, the tricky DST issue simply was not put on the Council’s agenda. Not once. And now that Portugal chairs the Council, there are no plans to revisit the issue, either.
And so, three years on from a supposedly historic vote to abolish DST, nothing has happened, nothing is happening, and nothing looks likely to happen.
This European spring was supposed to be the last time Europeans had to change the clocks for DST. Yet there is no end in sight to this practice.
As mentioned before, Europe will survive this. And frankly, it has other, more existential problems to solve: the pandemic, the survival of the Euro, and more than a few geostrategic challenges in its neighbourhood.
Still, if Europe cannot even tackle the relatively straightforward question of whether to have DST – and if it rather hopes that such issues would go away by ignoring them, it does not bode well for the EU as an institution.
Meanwhile, in New Zealand, there is a petition on Parliament’s website right now: not just to abolish the clock changes twice a year but to also specify that New Zealand shall implement permanent Daylight Saving Time forever.
How funny would it be if we could fix our clocks before Europe, even though they have had years of head start?