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View from Brussels: Stop all the clocks

Image credit: European Commission

Two years ago, the European Union decided that it would be a good idea to phase out daylight savings time, putting in motion rules changes that would scrap the biannual clock change in 2021. But it now looks likely that it won’t actually happen.

Time is a strange concept: most of us are counting down the days until a viable Covid-19 vaccine is developed, while less recently in mainland Europe electronic clocks were a few minutes off, due to a dispute over power grids in the Balkans.

In 2018, the EU was in a mood to do something that members of the general public would notice and maybe even benefit from: scrap daylight savings time and do away with the twice-yearly trudge around the house to put the clocks either backwards or forwards.

Officials and MEPs always claim that their decisions are rooted in science, and the idea was duly accompanied by studies and research touting the benefits of cancelling the decades-old system, which was imposed to save power during energy crises and during wartime.

"We carried out a survey, millions responded and believe that in future, summertime should be year-round, and that’s what will happen," then Commission President Jean-Claude Junker said back in 2018. "The people want it, we’ll do it."

The claimed advantages range from fewer road traffic accidents and deaths to better human health - by preventing disruptions to circadian rhythms - and recent data suggests that any energy savings are quickly being whittled away by efficiency improvements in things like lighting.

So it appeared to be an easy win for the EU, which might even be bracketed in the same category as free mobile phone roaming and the Erasmus student exchange scheme as policies dreamed up in Brussels actually having a tangible impact on everyday people.

But like every bright or good-intentioned idea woven together by the EU, it came with immediate drawbacks. The bloc’s executive branch, the Commission, does not have the power to just click its fingers and end DST, it is up to national governments.

Unfortunately for the plan’s masterminds, Europe’s capitals are located in very different places and, as such, have very different axes to grind.

Slovenia, for example, is in favour of sticking permanently with winter time, while tourism-reliant Croatia would plump for never-ending summer time. Already, a patchwork of different timezones starts to emerge and the whole point of the exercise starts to fade.

And given the EU’s collective management of the coronavirus crisis over the last six months, it raises doubts about whether the time-change plan is worth doing or even a smart play to make. Officials are starting to acknowledge that their efforts might be better spent elsewhere.

In the early days of the outbreak in Europe, traffic jams stretched for mile after mile when governments closed internal borders without properly informing their neighbours ahead of time.

The institutions in Brussels eventually urged capitals not to shut frontiers without good reason or without plenty of prior notice, but the damage was already done and businesses worried about going under due to cut supply chains.

A lack of working technology is certainly not the issue. The EU quickly developed an app for logistics companies that helped identify congested routes and provide real-time data on traffic patterns using GPS, which helped keep goods flowing.

Public transport companies are also using similar tech to monitor the number of passengers riding buses, trams, metros and trains, so that they can adjust services, keep capacity high and reestablish some faith in the idea that the vehicles are safe and hygienic transport options.

The virus crisis has revealed a lot about the EU and confirmed what many suspected were its shortcomings. The institutions have little power to set health policy, for example, and in a lot of areas, like border management, it is up to countries to make decisions.

When MEPs voted in favour of the idea in 2019, March 2021 was set as the final clock change. But it is now October 2020 and national governments are yet to agree their common position. Talks between the institutions have not happened yet, suggesting the plan will simply fall off the docket.

On paper, the DST idea is a good one, given the scientific and public support it enjoys. But in practice, EU countries are seemingly not equipped to implement it. Remember then to set your clocks back an hour on Sunday.

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