EU capitals are split on everything from migration to trucker rights — but on time, the European Commission is hoping the bloc sticks together.
The Commission this week unveiled a draft law to do away with the ritual of changing the clocks twice a year, after EU citizens firmly backed scrapping daylight saving in a public consultation.
But the EU doesnt have the competence to impose a single time regime — it can only relax existing EU rules and give countries the freedom to choose. Capitals would have until April to decide if they want their citizens to remain in permanent summer or endless winter time, posing a huge headache if governments opt to create multiple 60-minute time changes across the bloc.
“We are not proposing that the whole EU either switches to summer or winter time,” said Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc at a press conference Friday. “All we are proposing is that we do it together.”
The speed at which the Commission is pushing its proposal throws open the possibility that Northern Ireland and Ireland, or countries within the Baltics, could be running on different time as soon as next year.
“The goal is to decide on either summer or winter time. A split would be [a] disadvantage” — Austrian diplomat
Bulc said early indications showed citizens of Portugal, Cyprus and Poland are veering for summer time, while locals in Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands want winter time.
Finlands government, which pushed for the change to maximize the health benefits from sunlight, said it will launch a public consultation this month asking citizens to decide. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also backed the move after a huge majority of consultation responses — 3 million — came from Germany, but hasnt committed to a preferred time.
To avoid any snap decisions, EU officials want capitals to kick off national consultations as soon as possible. The Austrian EU presidency is poised to test the water at an informal meeting of transport ministers in October in Graz.
“The goal is to decide on either summer or winter time,” an Austrian diplomat said. “A split would be [a] disadvantage.” Politicians in Vienna have already indicated they want countries to unanimously choose summer time.
Transport operators would be one industry affected as they seek to firm up schedules for 2019. Libor Lochman, executive director of the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER), said a six-month window should be enough for companies to update their computer systems — assuming capitals all move in the same direction.
“Of course, we should know that in advance so it doesnt not cause any problems,” said Lochman. “But I cannot believe countries would be so stupid.”
An election issue
After the European Parliament asked the Commission to consider scrapping daylight saving time for potential health benefits, 84 percent of the 4.6 million responses to the consultation backed the change — compelling Brussels to act ahead of the looming election.
Daylight saving has been in place in Germany since World War I, with other countries adopting the practice of changing the clocks in the 1970s to cut energy consumption. But LED lightbulbs now make that saving largely irrelevant: the energy consumed by lighting in Germany, for example, was estimated to be down to 8 percent of the total national energy mix by 2015.
The Commissions draft law must be backed by the Parliament and the Council for it to enter into law. The timetable set out by the Commission means ministers and MEPs would need to agree on it this year.
The proposal gives countries an opportunity to show unity just days after the U.K. is scheduled to leave the bloc on March 29, with the final one-hour clock change scheduled for Sunday March 31, 2019.
“The result of the Commission consultation indicates that abandoning switching of the clocks is a much larger issue in Europe than it would at first seem,” Finlands Transport Minister Anne Berner told POLITICO on Friday.
“It is now a flagship proposal that will show to EU citizens how well their voices are heard,” she said.
Read this next: African swine fever: Everything you need to know