The price of moving to permanent summertime

The result of the European Commission’s Public Consultation on summertime arrangements was released today. In my opinion European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are reading too much into the non-binding and non-representative result. At this point, the realistic question to formulate would be: a) would you accept a time zone boundary splitting Western Europe as the price of ending the biannual clock changes, or b) do you prefer the current arrangement?

The consultation

The European Commission held a public consultation from 4th July until 16th August (6 weeks) to find out what the European citizens and stakeholders thought about the current system of daylight saving time. I really wonder if they achieved their goal. The results are in and some 84% of the respondents want to stop changing the clock twice a year. In the Commission’s interpretation this means an overwhelming support for bringing legislation to the European Parliament and the Council, who will decide on the matter.

But the Consultation wasn’t particularly well advertised in my experience. It only ever caught my attention through Facebook contacts: by a German friend’s post on the penultimate day and by a Hungarian’s post on the last day of the consultation. The participation rate in each EU member state (in percentage of the national population) was the following:

Germany

3.79%

Austria

2.94%

Luxembourg

1.78%

Finland

0.96%

Estonia

0.94%

Cyprus

0.88%

Slovenia

0.73%

Slovakia

0.60%

Czech Republic

0.59%

France

0.59%

Belgium

0.55%

Croatia

0.52%

Sweden

0.48%

Latvia

0.39%

Poland

0.34%

Greece

0.34%

Lithuania

0.34%

Portugal

0.33%

Malta

0.25%

Ireland

0.24%

Hungary

0.21%

Spain

0.19%

Bulgaria

0.18%

Netherlands

0.16%

Denmark

0.11%

Italy

0.04%

Romania

0.04%

United Kingdom

0.02%

This is not much! For a referendum to be quorate, you often need at least 50% participation (of the voting age population) or 25% of the electorate supporting the winning outcome. Plus, people are informed by official post of referendums. Plus, participants are not selected from the population in a biased manner (the consultation was online). Plus, this was a non-binding consultation, not a referendum. To me it’s clear that mainly those would participate in such a survey who are dissatisfied with the present arrangements. We don’t know what the overwhelming, silent majority wants.

Basically, Germany (and Austria, but the German population is 9.4 times larger anyway) decided the vote. It’s no surprise then that Angela Merkel is quicker in embracing the result and the cause than her cautious spokesperson was. But do we really want a European issue, which is practical and very tangible for the population, be decided so obviously by Germany…?

Currently there are similar consultations on the evaluation of invoicing rules, on the Evaluation of the activities of the EU Intellectual Property Office related to enforcement and the European Observatory on Infringements of Intellectual Property Rights (Regulation No 386/2012) or on the Evaluation of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive. Let them have those.

The repercussions

Everybody agrees that one thing mustn’t happen: EU countries individually deciding whether to keep daylight saving time.

At this juncture, evidence is only conclusive on one point: that allowing uncoordinated time changes between Member States would be detrimental to the internal market due to higher costs to cross-border trade, inconveniences in transport, communications and travel, and lower productivity in the internal market for goods and services.
Consultation

In the city-dwelling, office worker Hungarian and German populations the question arises as a conflict between having longer bright evenings for leisure activities, enabled by summertime, versus having to go to work and to school in the morning still in the dark in the winter. Daylight saving time provides a compromise in this conflict. If we wanted to get rid of the inconvenience of clock changes, then do we want more light in the morning or in the evening?

Keeping daylight saving time or abolishing it, as a legal question, is independent from the choice of a time zone, which is the prerogative of every European country. However, in practice, these questions are intertwined. At this point it’s worth looking at a map of Europe and its time zones. (Or try it here.)

Time zones in Europe by timeanddate.com

If Germans and Hungarians who want longer bright evenings have their way (`keep summertime all the time’), then their countries will have to join the time zone one hour ahead, the zone of Finland, the Baltic states, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. Those countries could also move one time zone ahead. But I expect that they would prefer to stay in their current time zones and benefit from sharing a time zone with their western EU neighbours.

If you now look to the west, to France and Spain, what should they do? The Earth rotates by 15° in one hour. On the same latitude, the Sun comes up with one hour difference between two points whose longitudes are 15° apart. If dark winter mornings are an issue in Germany, think how much bigger an issue they are for parents trying to take their children to school in Bretagne or in Spain! The longitudes of Budapest and Paris differ by almost 17°. The difference between the longitudes of Budapest and La Coruna is a staggering 27.4°, or 110 minutes in terms of sunrise and sunset (if we ignore difference in latitude). Currently, these cities are in the same time zone.

It’s instructive to consider how symmetric or asymmetric mornings and evenings are. The role of the morning and the evening is not symmetrical in our society. The morning is for work, the evening is for play. (For the majority, or what politicians consider the average voter.) If you think about what happens in the spring: the sunrise is drifting earlier, and at one point, by changing to summertime, we set it back in the direction where it was. But with this change, the sunset, which was drifting later, is pushed even further later. So while summertime has a stabilising effect on the time of sunrise, it increases the swings in the time of sunset. It has a stabilising effect on the position of the Sun in the sky when we go to work, but it destabilises the same thing in the evening. Without daylight saving time, the light conditions in the morning would swing so wildly throughout the year that either winter mornings in Spain or summer mornings in Hungary would be too extreme for the local population to tolerate. (We are not Scandinavians.)

I claim that daylight saving time allows us to unite a very broad area from Spain to Hungary into one time zone. If we do away with it, then winter mornings in Spain will force the country to join the time zone of Portugal.

But I wouldn’t rule it out that France should also consider going that way. If the personal preference of Hungarians is one time zone, then the preference for a nation 15° to the west should be to be in the next time zone. It would bring them into a time zone with the United Kingdom, with its own advantages. (Apart from the footnote that Britain after the Brexit in her newfound independence would not be forced to give up daylight saving time. But it would be strange for her not to follow Europe on this, thereby making the first joke of their post-Brexit independence from Europe!…) If France went towards west, and this is a big if, why shouldn’t the Benelux follow? Half of Belgium speaks French and I guess Luxembourg leans culturally and economically more strongly towards France than towards Germany.

There could be a time zone difference between Germany and France! I see one between Germany and Spain almost guaranteed. This would be disruptive to business, to many cross-border commuters and frequent travellers.

The verdict

I think abolishing summertime at the whim of 3.79% of the German population would ultimately be a self-indulgent, dare I say, provincial decision. The question now is, once every country has made public which time zone they would join in an EU without summertime, would a majority still want to abolish summertime? That’d be the time for a broad public consultation.

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