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View from Brussels: EU time tweak loses momentum for another year

Image credit: European Commission

An EU plan to scrap the bi-annual change of clocks has stalled, after it initially seemed as if 2019 would be the last year of ‘spring forward, fall back’.

In 2018, the European Commission asked millions of Europeans whether they were fed up with changing their clocks twice a year. The overwhelming majority said they would prefer to stick to the same time-zone all the time. 

That led the head of the EU’s executive to promise that spring 2019 would be the last clock change, citing improvements in human health and road safety as the main reasons. 

One of the original reasons for its introduction, energy savings, has also been shown to be outdated, given that modern efficient lighting has already slashed energy consumption. 

But the pledge by Jean-Claude Juncker proved to be too ambitious, as national governments warned it was too much, too soon.

The main reason for the delay is based on avoiding transport chaos and a patchwork of different time-zones, as the Commission has no power to impose a decision on all 28 member states.

Estimates by the airline industry say at least 18 months will be needed to prepare once the final decision is made, as time slots will have to be adjusted to take it into account. Europe’s rail networks, especially those operating cross-border services like Deutsche Bahn (DB), are also pushing for patience.

The current situation presents its own challenges to transport providers. After October’s hour-gain, DB employees had to manually alter more than 10,000 station clocks across Germany.

Under the EU proposal, the switch would indeed be scrapped but countries would be free to choose whether to stick with summer or winter time on a permanent basis. 

But therein lies the problem; the loose nature of the plan means there is a risk that a hodge-podge of time-zones will emerge, as neighbours plump for different options.

Some countries are in favour of keeping summer time and the extra evening daylight hours afforded by it, especially those more dependent on tourism, like Croatia. Others would prefer the lighter mornings of winter time.

In that regard, the Commission has created a lot of work for itself, as it will now have to assess whether the EU’s internal market will be worse off, once each country has decided what it wants to do.

The UK, along with Sweden and Poland, is sceptical about changing the status quo. A minister in the Department for Business, Kelly Tolhurst, told a House of Lords subcommittee in October that the idea should be “kicked into the long grass”.

Under the current Brexit plan, the UK would have to implement any EU decisions made before December 2020 but would be free to diverge once the so-called transition period has expired. It is unclear whether a future trade deal between the two parties would broach the subject of time.

The issue also complicates the issue of Northern Ireland further, even though the new Brexit agreement, tweaked in October, put to bed many of the hard-border fears. The Republic would have to follow the EU’s lead, which could mean a ‘time border’ on the island. “This is something we don’t want to happen,” Tolhurst told the committee. “We will be working with our Irish counterparts, particularly with the Northern Ireland Office, to make sure we present a united front in our wishes for this not to happen.”

That seems unlikely to work though, as only 55 per cent of countries have to agree on whether to call time on the switch. Diplomats have informed E&T that national ministers will be asked to commit to a 2021 deadline in December.

Impact assessments are still ongoing, so 2021 might even be too soon. German MEP Peter Liese said: “I am frustrated that the member states are not doing their job,” and that: “It’s really annoying things are going on for so long.”

The case has confirmed a number of things about the EU. Even with direct support from everyday people, the institutions are still limited by national governments in what they can do. It also shows the glacial pace of the decision-making process.

If confirmation were even needed, the debate about whether to change time also proves that Brexit has pervaded every aspect of politics and policy.

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