EU Makes Daylight-Saving Time a Ballot Issue Amid Populist Surge

(Bloomberg) -- On your marks, get set, stop!

That’s what the European Commission is urging with regard to seasonal clock changes.

The European Union’s executive arm wants EU countries to end the decades-old practice of capitalizing on natural daylight by putting clocks forward by 60 minutes between late March and late October.

The legislative initiative, which commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced in a Sept. 12 speech that included warnings about the dangers of populism, has a populist quality of its own. Juncker said seasonal time changes confuse European citizens and risk giving them a negative view of the EU in the run-up to European Parliament elections in May.

“In May 2019 the Europeans won’t applaud if twice a year we have to continue to change the clocks,” Juncker told the 28-nation assembly in Strasbourg, France. “We need to change this business of changing clocks.”

‘Waste of Daylight’

The EU began to regulate daylight-saving time in the 1980s by harmonizing national practices. The goal was to prevent divergent approaches from undermining the European single market for transport, communications and commerce.

The notion of daylight-saving time is a lot older than that. The idea is attributed to a late British builder named William Willett, who wrote a 1907 pamphlet called “The Waste of Daylight,” and the practice was first instituted in 1916 by Germany and followed by other European countries and the U.S. to conserve energy for their World War I efforts, according to an EU Parliament study.

The October 2017 report says that, while daylight-saving time benefits the transport industry, helps outdoor leisure activities and reduces energy consumption, it is associated with disruptions to the human biorhythm.

When in February the EU Parliament asked the commission to conduct a “thorough assessment” of the legislation on summertime hours, Juncker’s team signaled lukewarm interest at most. Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc told the assembly that the appetite in EU national capitals to change the current legislation was limited.

Then came a public consultation (at the height of summertime, no less) by the commission that it says produced more than 4.6 million responses -- the most ever in such an exercise. The answers from citizens and interested parties to the online questionnaire showed that 84 percent want to abolish seasonal clock changes, according to the commission. The EU has more than 500 million inhabitants.

Permanent Summertime

Austria, which is managing the EU’s legislative business through December as current holder of the bloc’s rotating presidency, has vowed to take up the draft legislation.

“We take the commission proposal seriously and will try to make progress on it,” said Vera Puererfellner, a Brussels-based spokeswoman for the Austrian government. “It’s too early to predict results.”

Under the proposal, which Juncker wants EU governments and the bloc’s Parliament to approve within just seven months, each member country would notify by April 2019 whether it intends to apply permanent summertime or wintertime.

The last mandatory change to summertime would occur on March 31, 2019. After that, EU countries wishing permanently to switch back to wintertime could still make one final seasonal clock change on Oct. 27, 2019.

Notwithstanding the fast-track approval process required, the commission said the proposed change in the system “should be based on coordination between member states, possible consultations and assessments at national and European level.”

That would be a tall order even without more existential challenges the EU faces.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.