Summer time arrangements in the EU: A tripartite outlook on ‘Cloxit’

On 31 March 2019, clocks across the EU will go forward one hour, a Union-wide event since 2002. However, the European Commission has proposed abolishing the bi-annual hour change, an idea favoured by the vast majority of respondents in a public consultation. This article discusses reactions by governments and national social partner organisations to the proposal, based on contributions from the Network of Eurofound Correspondents.

Introduction

In 2002, Directive 2000/84/EC on summer time arrangements came into force: on the last Sunday of March, the clocks in all the Members States were put forward by one hour, establishing the summer time period. Summer time then ended on the last Sunday of October, when the clocks were put back one hour. The directive was introduced to cater for the changing of patterns of daylight and to make the best of the available daylight during the year; in addition, it has provided a commonly agreed time for EU countries, so helping the functioning of the single market. Its importance was such that it was taken into the European Economic Area agreement.

In recent years, the system of bi-annual changes had been increasingly questioned; in February 2018, the European Parliament called upon the European Commission to conduct a thorough assessment of the directive and to propose a revision, if necessary. Over the period 4 July–16 August 2018, the Commission carried out a public consultation on the matter, which found that the vast majority of respondents were in favour of ending the bi-annual clock change. In September 2018, the Commission proposed that the seasonal time changes set out by the directive be abolished; instead, it would be left to Member States to decide which standard time they wished to apply. A number of media outlets have dubbed the proposal ‘Cloxit’.

From the perspective of working life, the bi-annual change of hour raises a number of possible impacts on safety and health. The hour change in March can result in sleep deprivation, which poses the risk of accidents (in particular, road accidents) in the period immediately following. The hour change in March also has potential negative consequences on people’s health due to difficulties in adjusting the human biological rhythm to the change of time. The Commission says that evidence points to only marginal impacts of the summer-time arrangements, for example, relatively small energy saving effects, or that it remains inconclusive on issues such as overall health impacts or road safety.

Public consultation on summer time arrangements

The European Commission’s public consultation on EU summer time arrangements gave EU citizens the opportunity to indicate, out of two options, their preference:

  • continue with the present summer time period regime
  • keep the same hour regime over the entire year.

The exercise recorded the highest participation rate in any Commission public consultation: around 4.6 million responses were received (70% coming from Germany). Overall, some 76% of the respondents stated that changing the hour twice a year is a ‘negative’ or ‘very negative’ experience for them (European Commission, 2018b). However, citizens in Finland, Poland and Lithuania felt even more unfavourably, with 93%, 91% and 89%, respectively, stating that the experience was a negative one. In contrast, respondents in Greece, Cyprus and Malta viewed the hour change most favourably: 58%, 55% and 49%, respectively, reported a positive experience.

The vast majority of respondents (84%) are in favour of ending the bi-annual clock change. Only in Greece and Cyprus did a small majority express a preference for keeping the current arrangement (56% and 53% respectively). Some 90% or more of respondents in Finland (95%), Poland (95%), Spain (93%), Lithuania (91%), and Hungary (90%) favour abolishing the existing system.

The main reasons given for abolishing the seasonal clock change are its perceived negative impact on health (43%) and the limited energy savings that result from it in practice (20%). In contrast, the principal reason given for keeping the current arrangement is the greater available light for leisure activities in the evening (42%).

Respondents were also asked if, in the event of the seasonal clock change being abolished, they would prefer permanent summer time as opposed to permanent standard (winter) time. A small majority (56%) stated a preference for permanent summer time, while 36% favour permanent standard (winter) time; 8% have no opinion.

Government support for abolishing time change

After the public consultation by the Commission and the announcement by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that the bi-annual change would cease, some Member States came forward with an official position on the matter. The Austrian and the Estonian governments announced that they supported abolishing the current arrangement and stated a preference for permanent summer time. The Latvian government welcomed abolishing the clock change if summer time were uniformly determined as a base time throughout the EU; however, it stated that it did not support abolishing the change if the issue were determined at national level. Lithuania and Finland, the main initiators of the request to the European Parliament to review Directive 2000/84/EC, welcomed the potential abolishment but to date have released no official positions – in particular, regarding which time standard to adopt after the abolishment.

Some countries have decided to carry out further consultations at national level to help formulate a national position on the matter. The Bulgarian government, for example, initiated a thematic on-line survey to help preparing the national decision on the time arrangements. Similarly, the Maltese government launched a public consultation on the topic in September. While the Spanish government is, in principle, in favour of ending the current arrangement, it decided to set up an expert committee in order to assess the impact on energy savings, quality of life and welfare, labour productivity, etc. Here, the issue is not so much the abolishment itself but rather the time schedule to align with; in that respect, some organisations such as the Association for Rational Schedules (Arhoe) have stated a preference for the standard (winter) time.

Other Member States, despite not yet having formulated an official position, have explicitly prioritised harmonising the time with their neighbouring countries. For example, the prime ministers of the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), at the September European summit in Salzburg, agreed that the three countries must use the same time system, to be determined at a joint consultation among the three countries. Similarly, in Slovakia, the Minister for Labour, in a preliminary opinion, stressed the need to reconcile the time system in Slovakia with that of its neighbours.

Portugal seems to be the only country whose government expressed a preference to continue with the seasonal change of hour. Its rationale is based on a study by the Astronomical Observatory of Lisbon (OAL), which concludes that, without the hour change, people in Portugal would start their daily activities in darkness (before sunrise) for 40% of the year (in the period October– March). In addition to recommending that the present system remain unchanged, the report recommends that the change to winter time take place earlier in the year (in September) so as to shorten the summer time period and allow a better alignment of clock time with solar time over the course of the year.

Brexit and the Irish predicament

By the time the information for this article was collated, neither the Irish nor the British governments had issued any official position or opinion on abolishing the seasonal hour change. However, there is some concern about the potential consequences of this abolishment in the context of the British exit from the European Union (Brexit) process. In the UK, a number of news outlets have focused on the possibility that Britain and Northern Ireland might operate in different time zones after Brexit, or that Ireland could operate one hour’s difference from Northern Ireland for seven months of the year.[1] The Irish Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan, has said that the island of Ireland is unique in terms of having two jurisdictions, and that the possibility of having two different time zones is not one that he would welcome.[2]

Social partner positions

Social partners have not expressed opinions regarding the proposed abolishment of hour change to the same extent as national governments. However, their expressed concerns do provide an insight into the potential impact upon individuals, organisations, and the overall functioning of economies and societies.

Employer organisations’ opinions

Most of the national employer organisations are in favour of the proposed abolishment of the seasonal change of hour. The Confederation of Industry of the Czech Republic (SP ČR), for example, does not see any reason to switch to summer time in the coming years. Similarly, the Confederation of Trade and Services of Portugal (CCP) argues that ending the time change would bring benefits to domestic trade. Given that 70% of Portuguese exports are to Spain and central Europe, CCP believes that the discussion should rather focus on Portugal’s potential adoption of Central European Time. In Poland, the employers’ Confederation Lewiatan, issued a statement supporting the proposal to cease the bi-annual change, claiming that it would be beneficial for business. The organisation warned, however, that the same time regime would have to be adopted across the entire EU in order to avoid any damage to business. The Latvian Employers’ Confederation (LDDK), basing its view on a survey of its members, also supports the ceasing of the hour change. And LDDK underlined the need for a harmonised approach to the issue across the EU, to avoid any potential negative impacts on the functioning of the Single Market. The Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK) and the Finnish Hospitality Association (representing companies in the hospitality sector), has called for a joint decision among the Member States.

In Slovakia, employers’ opinions are divided. On the one hand, the National Union of Employers (RUZ SR) considers that the present system is working well and a change is not required. On the other hand, the Association of Industrial Unions (APZ) would welcome a change to the seasonal switch.

On a different note, the Danish Transport and Logistics Association of Employers (DTL Arbejdsgiver) has, in a hearing, expressed its concern about about the proposed abolishment. DTL Arbejdsgiver is particularly concerned about the potential consequences of Member States individually determining their time zone. According to the organisation, the time zone must remain the same for Central Europe (for example, between Denmark, Germany and Sweden), particularly in terms of the use of tachographs for monitoring driving and rest periods.

Trade unions’ opinions

There has been almost no expression of opinion by national trade unions on the proposed abolishment of the bi-annual hour change; those that have been expressed represent opposing views. The Confederation of Trade Unions of the Slovak Republic (KOZ SR) feels that changing the hours has more negative consequences than benefits for occupational safety and health, and therefore should be abolished. In contrast, the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions, LO, has, in a statement, presented some arguments against the proposal to abolish the current clock changes. LO argues that the current regime offers certain advantages. Particularly in spring, the opportunity to work an extra hour in daylight is beneficial to both industry and employees. Likewise, the current summer time means that in warm weather workers can start an hour earlier, thus avoiding some of the afternoon heat. Without the existing adjustments of clock time, it can be expected that employees will be asked adjust their working time instead, starting work earlier to take advantage of the light and avoid the heat. LO is sceptical of the value of such reorganisation of working time.

The General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP-IN) issued a statement saying that rather than discussing summer time, attention should instead be paid to respecting working schedules and ensuring a 35-hour working week.

Commentary

The impact of harmonising time across the EU may reach well beyond the apparently innocuous act of bringing our clocks one hour forward in spring and one hour back in autumn. The elimination of time adjustments may bring many benefits; however, it may also mean adjustments to working hours that are not beneficial for workers – in terms of working in the heat, making the most of the daylight and having time for leisure and social activities, etc.

Geography does play a role in the position countries take regarding Cloxit. It was countries in the north of Europe that proposed abolishing the time change, but it is in Mediterranean Member States that more individuals express satisfaction with the bi-annual change of time. Overall, however, the vast majority of citizens, governments and social partner organisations consider abolishing clock changes twice a year in the EU as a positive development. For the moment, there is no consensus among governments and national social partners regarding which time arrangements to adopt after an eventual Cloxit. This raises the risk that countries that presently are in the same time zone, and change the time in a synchronised way, may end up with different time standards. The case of Ireland is paradigmatic: in the conclusion of the Brexit process, the Ireland and Northern Ireland might end up in different time zones, despite sharing the same island.

The impacts of Cloxit on such aspects of working life as daily start and end times of work, work–life balance, leisure and social time, and safety and health, are not yet fully understood. And that is perhaps part of the explanation for the uncertainty surrounding which time standard to adopt. To ensure fully informed decisions on an appropriate time standard it is important to consider some key points. First, more research on the impact of Cloxit on living and working conditions is required to better understand the potential consequences (some Member States are currently carrying out such research). Second, the situation calls for further public consultation and debate at national level (again, in train in some Member States – through national surveys, for example). Further social dialogue is also called for, so that social partner organisations contribute to the discussion and final decision. Finally, the situation requires, as the European Commission acknowledges in the directive proposal documents, concertation and harmonisation of national positions in such a way that they do not jeopardise the functioning of the internal market and of society as a whole across the EU.

Update – November 2018

After this article was written, the change of time was discussed in the informal meeting of the EU transport ministers that began on 29 October 2018, in Graz, Austria. The first plenary session showed that a majority of EU Member States are in favour of the abolishment. Only Greece, Portugal, and the UK expressed opposition; Cyprus, Denmark, France, Italy, Ireland and the Netherlands have not yet taken a position. There was a general consensus that abolishing the bi-annual change may take place only when the next steps are known and an impact assessment is available.[3]At the same event, EU Commissioner for Transport, Violeta Bulc, stated that a decision in this matter should not be rushed and that more studies and surveys are needed, requiring more time. This reinforces even more the belief of the authors of this report in the need for more research on the impact of abolishment, in the need for further debate, and in the key role that social dialogue can play in the final decisions. In this context, more time is essential to ensure the best decision.

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