EU could postpone abolishing clock change until 2021

Ministers have called for more time to discuss measure, which Brussels wanted to introduce next March

Álvaro Sánchez
Last weekend, the clocks went back one hour for what was thought to be the last time.
Last weekend, the clocks went back one hour for what was thought to be the last time.Sebastian Kahnert (AFP/Getty)

Plans to abolish the clock change between summer and winter across Europe have been put on hold after European Union member states called for more time to debate the measure.

In September, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker pledged to do away with the time change by the end of his mandate in 2019. Brussels backed the move and said the twice-yearly adjustment could be gone by March of next year. The announcement surprised many, particularly since EU Transportation Commissioner Violeta Bulc had just weeks earlier earmarked 2021 as the soonest possible date for the practice to end.

It would be frankly absurd to have a different time in each EU state

Czech Transportation Minister Dan Tok

Now, following a meeting with EU transportation ministers on Monday in the Austrian city of Graz, the EU has indicated that the ritual may not be abolished until 2021.

“If we choose to do it in 2019, like the Commission suggests, we will not have the support of the majority of member states,” warned Norbert Hofer, Austria’s transportation minister.

“We need an in-depth public debate on the issue. More time is needed for debate,” agreed Danish minister Ole Birk Olesen.

Airlines are also concerned about how the proposed change could affect flight schedules. At a meeting on Monday, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said they would need more time to reschedule flights according to the new time zones.

Under the EU directive  2000/84/CE, the clocks must go back on the last weekend of October, and be moved forward again on the last weekend of March to mark the start of daylight saving (or summer) time and standard (or winter) time.

Brussels said it would propose abolishing the time adjustments throughout the EU after a survey revealed that 84% of 4.6 million respondents wanted to stop changing the clocks. “This is the issue that the European Parliament is most asked about,” explained Commissioner Bulc.

A study showed that 84% of people in the EU want to stop changing the clocks

After making the proposal, Brussels called on EU member states to decide before April whether they would prefer to stay on winter or summer time, but most have not yet made a decision. There is also some outright opposition to the plans. Portugal, Greece and the United Kingdom want to keep changing the clocks, while Cyprus, the Netherlands, Ireland, France and Denmark have not clarified their position yet. At the very least, the agreement on the time change will have to be postponed until the next ministerial meeting in December.

The time change was implemented to save energy after the world wars and the oil crisis, but there are doubts about whether it generates any significant savings today. Studies analyzed by the European Commission suggest marginal savings of 0.5% to 2.5% in electricity usage.

Once a decision is made on the time adjustment, countries will have the power to choose whether they remain on summer or winter time. Brussels, however, wants the move to be coordinated.  “Our objective is clear: whatever happens, we must avoid the fragmentation of the EU, and opt for a harmonious approach,” said Bulc.

This concern is reflected by transportation ministers across the EU. “All of central Europe needs to be on the same schedule. It would be frankly absurd to have a different one in each state,” said Czech minister Dan Tok.

If we choose to do it in 2019, like the Commission suggests, we will not have the support of the majority of member states

Austria’s Transportation Minister Norbert Hofer

Luxembourg’s minister, François Bausch, agreed: “To have a different time from our neighbors in Germany, France and Belgium would be a catastrophe for us.” Luxembourg would be one of the countries most affected by any disagreement over the time. Around 200,000 workers cross into Luxembourg for work each day, and a disagreement with neighboring countries would force them to live on two schedules.

There are three time zones in the EU, without taking into account the outermost regions: Western European Time, which comprises the United Kingdom, Portugal and Ireland; Central European Time, which includes Spain, Germany and Italy; and Eastern European Time, which includes Greece, Finland and Romania.

There is also debate about whether Spain is in the right time zone to begin with. During World War II, Spain and other European countries – save for Portugal and Switzerland – moved the clocks forward. Spain’s decision was allegedly a show of loyalty to Hitler, and meant to be a temporary change.

But Spain never went back to Western European Time. So while geographically Spain should be on the same time zone as the United Kingdom and Portugal, its clocks are in the same zone as countries as far east as Poland, meaning fewer hours of light in the morning, and more in the evening. This has led to unique schedules in which eating times and work timetables can differ significantly from those in neighboring countries.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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