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A timeless Europe

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert
October 26, 2019

This Sunday, the clocks go back again in the European Union. Daylight saving time will be with us for quite a while yet, because the EU can’t make up its mind. A sign of the times, according to Bernd Riegert.

Clock face showing five to 12 with figure of man next to big hand
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/U. Baumgarten

Time heals all wounds, they say. But unfortunately, it's a saying that doesn't apply to the European Union. Quite the opposite: The longer problems are kicked down the line, the more complicated they become. It's true of major crises like Brexit, and of small matters like the abolition of daylight saving time.

Small matters? Far from it. The abolition of the biannual time change, due to happen again this Sunday, is itself taking a great deal of time. Many hours have been squandered in consultation, yet the EU member states cannot agree on who would abolish or retain which time, and when.

Bernd Riegert
DW's Bernd Riegert

Some countries want to do feasibility studies and appoint coordination committees. The European Commission rejects this. Time is pressing, because the topic is supposed to be wrapped up by Jean-Claude Juncker before his time as president of the Commission is up. This isn't going to happen. Turning back the clock to before 1996, when summer time was standardized in all EU countries, may become one of the timeless classics of all the European squabbles. They're already placing bets in Brussels on which will happen first: Brexit, or the abolition of summer time. Or should that be winter time?

Which zone is best?

Some countries want to keep summer time, because it gets light later in the mornings. Some find winter time better, because it gets light earlier in the mornings. And vice versa. It looks as if there'll be a merry patchwork of countries in the EU's three time zones wanting to switch, or drop out of the central time management altogether.

On the subject of time zones … Spain is considering leaving the Central European time zone and introducing British time — Greenwich Mean Time. Geographically speaking, this would make a lot more sense. Going by the position of the sun, GMT would be a much better fit for Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and France as well.

The European Parliament was originally aiming for the year 2021 for the great summer time/winter time reform. The member states reject this, though, as it leaves too little time for all the complex preparations. But — preparations for what, exactly? EU accession state Turkey has shown them how it can be done with a minimum of fuss. In 2016, President Erdogan decided that Turkey would remain on summer time all year round, effectively catapulting his country into a time zone that is always three hours from GMT/UTC.

Map with countries using summer time as of 2019

Direct democracy is nonsense

How did it come to this? A quick look back in time can help here. Summer time is a leftover from World War One, when armies wanted more light to conduct their senseless slaughter. Germany reintroduced it in World War Two for the same reason. The clocks were changed by many countries again in the 1970s during the major oil crisis, to save energy. Finally, the whole business was enshrined in EU law — for all time, or so people thought.

The results of an online poll in the EU in 2018 showed that the vast majority of its 4.6 million participants wanted to end changing times back and forth because having just one time would supposedly be better for our health as it would be lighter or darker earlier in the evening. Or was it in the morning? This questionnaire, deemed to be the will of the European people although it was not and is not representative, is to form the basis of any decisions. The spirit of our times appeared in action: direct democracy, civic participation.

Sun dial in Taubenheim, Germany
Using solar time: Perhaps the most practical method?Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Kahnert

All the things that went wrong in the Brexit referendum could be repeated in the vote on the daylight saving time. Sometimes, the supposed will of the people simply cannot be implemented, or only over a great deal of time. In neither case is the matter itself urgent. The time pressure is created artificially, by outside political forces. There should perhaps ultimately be a second referendum with the summer/winter time question, too, to reevaluate the whole problem in the light of all its potential consequences.

Freedom and sunshine

Time will tell. My advice is simply to reintroduce solar time. In geographical terms, time is different in every location — local time, which can be told by the position of the sun. When the sun is at its highest, it's midday. Period. The artificially introduced time zones that span the globe are basically just an anachronistic imposition.

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Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union