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Whatever happened to the EU plan to ditch the changing of the clocks?

This weekend marks, once again, the changing of the clocks across Europe - but the EU had actually come up with a plan to end this practice back in 2019. So what happened?

Whatever happened to the EU plan to ditch the changing of the clocks?
The World Time Clock (Weltzeituhr) in Berlin's Alexanderplatz. Photo by INA FASSBENDER / AFP

On the morning of Sunday, October 30th, people across Europe will turn the clock back by one hour, as countries return to winter time, also known as standard time.

For the next six months, it will get dark early but there will be more light going to work or school in the morning.

And while this weekend brings one hour of extra sleep, in March time clocks will move forward again to ‘daylight saving time’.

But wasn’t this supposed to change? What happened to the idea circulated in the European Union some years ago of no longer having seasonal time changes? 

The most successful public consultation

In 2018, the European Commission launched a public consultation asking people what they thought of scrapping the time changes.

It was the most successful EU consultation ever: 4.6 million people participated, in some cases representing a signification portion of the national population (3.79 per cent for Germany and 2.94 per cent for Austria).

People overwhelmingly said they wanted to stop moving the clock back and forward every six months – in fact 84 per cent of respondents agreed with the proposal. 

Negative health impacts, including sleep disruption, the lack of energy savings and an increase in road accidents were the most common reasons to justify the idea.

On that basis, in 2018 the Commission proposed legislation to end seasonal clock changes. This had to be approved by the European Parliament and by national governments represented at the EU Council.

The European Parliament in 2019 supported the proposal by a large majority suggesting time changes should be scrapped in 2021.

But EU governments could not find an agreement. Should summertime or wintertime become the norm? How to coordinate the change among neighbouring countries to avoid a patchwork of different time zones? And who would benefit the most? 

Brexit and the pandemic also got in the way. With the UK leaving the bloc and unlikely to follow new EU rules, abolishing time changes would have left the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in different time zones for half of the year. 

In some countries, support for the idea was also flimsy – in Cyprus, Greece and Malta less than half of participants in the consultation agreed.

The last time the matter was discussed at the EU Council was in December 2019. Countries then called on the European Commission to produce an “impact assessment” of the proposal before being able to decide. Then Covid-19 hit and the pandemic overshadowed the discussion.

Why changing time?

Time changes, adopted by some 70 countries, have a long history.

Daylight saving time (DST) was introduced in several countries, including Germany, France and the UK, during World War I to save energy by delaying switching the lights on in the evening.

The arrangements were abandoned after the wars but were revived in the 1970s to deal with the oil crisis. Italy introduced daylight saving time in 1966, Greece in 1971, the UK and Ireland in 1972, Spain in 1974 and France in 1976.

Since 2001, an EU directive obliges EU member states to move the clock forward by one hour on the last Sunday of March and backward on the last Sunday of October. Earlier in the 1990s countries were changing time on different dates, with complications for transport, communications and cross-border trade. 

But today does the system really ensure energy savings?

Several assessments have found that the benefits are ‘marginal’. One study estimates energy savings at between 0.5 per cent and 2.5 per cent, also depending on the geography, climate, economic and cultural factors of the country.

Generally, it seems that southern countries benefit the most, although gains are potentially diminished by technological advances, such as energy efficient devices. In other words, there is not just one factor to consider and results achieved in some countries do not necessarily apply to others. 

What happens next? 

The debate on seasonal time changes has recently been revived due to the energy crisis. In March, the US Senate passed a bill to make daylight saving time permanent from next year. Over the summer, reports in Italian media suggested the discussion could resume in the EU too. 

However, a spokesperson for the EU Council told The Local there is nothing new on the agenda.

“The Council has not yet formed its position on the Commission’s proposal,” he said in an email. “The country holding the presidency decides which proposals are put on the Council agenda. This proposal is not part of the current Czech presidency’s work programme”.

Nor is it known whether the country holding the EU Presidency for the next semester, Sweden, will include it in its work programme either. It seems therefore likely that Europeans will keep changing the time for a while. 

In 2022, the switch to winter time happens at 3am on Sunday, October 30th, when the clocks move back by one hour. 

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TRAVEL NEWS

INTERVIEW: Dover boss warns of ‘persistent long queues’ at French border

Six months from the planned entry into operation of new EU border checks, the Port of Dover is still in the dark on how the system will work, with the port's CEO warning of 'tailbacks throughout Kent' for passengers trying to cross to France.

INTERVIEW: Dover boss warns of 'persistent long queues' at French border

The EU’s Entry/Exit System (EES) is the new digital scheme to register non-EU citizens each time they cross the external borders of the Schengen Area.

Expected to become fully operational at the end of May 2023, the EES will enable the automatic scan of passports, replacing manual stamping by border guards. It will register the person’s name, type of the travel document, biometric data (fingerprints and facial images) and the date and place of entry and exit. 

You can find full details on how the scheme will work HERE.

The new system will come into effect in all the EU’s external borders – since Brexit this of course includes the UK-France border and there are major concerns about how this will work on the ground.

The border sees a huge amount of traffic – around 60 million passengers per year – and has a further quirk, that due to the Le Touquet agreement there are three places in the UK where travellers to the EU are cleared before departure; the port of Dover, Folkestone rail terminal and London’s St Pancras station. 

Given the amount of traffic it absorbs, the port of Dover will be particularly impacted by the EES. Already last summer long queues formed at UK Channel crossing points over the holiday season due to peak traffic and more rigorous post-Brexit checks. So how is the port planning for this major change next May? 

CEO Doug Bannister told The Local he does not know yet how the new system will work and he would welcome a delay or a transition period that would allow testing and addressing concerns. 

He said the planned implementation in May, just at the start of the summer travel season, could be a “risky time”.

“In every single period in the last three or four years, when deadlines have been set, we have always had to plan on the solution coming into place on the deadline. Now the regrettable thing is that until we truly know the details of how the system is going to work, the technology, the process… we have nothing to plan on to mitigate the concerns.

“Someone needs to describe the process and to show us the technology to support that process… We need to understand the implications of it, then we need to test to see if the technology doesn’t work well… or doesn’t do what the process is asking to do. Then we need time to train people to implement it.

“And to sit here early November, May 2023 seems awfully close to get all of that done,” he warned. 

Passport checks

Bannister explained that the UK and France operate juxtaposed controls at some border crossings, including Dover, meaning that immigration checks are carried out upfront.

People are currently advised to arrive 90 minutes before departure to go through security and immigration controls. One of the benefits, he says, is that “when you get to the other side, there is no queue, you just drive off the ferry and carry on.” 

The challenge is that the EES could generate queues, whether at the port or at the destination airport, as it involves taking four fingerprints and a facial image of all non-EU nationals crossing into the Schengen area.

This could mean that people travelling by car will all have to get out of the car to have their prints and scans taken – massively increasing the processing time per vehicle.

Bannister says the first-time registration, with the fingerprinting and the biometrics taken, is the most concerning part of the process as under current legislation it “has to take place at the border in front of an immigration officer”. 

The way this will happen, however, is not clear. Will people have to leave the car to have photo and fingerprints taken?

Bannister says the current process is “designed around an airport”, with individual passengers walking through a kiosk one at a time.

“The process as we have seen it has not had any considerations yet as to people going through a busy ferry terminal,” he explained. “That carries concerns, given the nature of our operations, where everything is moving and we have got trucks, coaches, motorcycles, caravans and cars.

“We can’t have people just get out of their car and wander around looking for a kiosk. It would be dangerous… So what we’ve been clear about is that any interventions that EES requires need to be done in the car… They need to be thinking a process that caters for passengers being in the vehicle and staying in the vehicle,” he argues.

Technical solutions

“One of the things that we have been seeking is for that registration process to be done online or remotely,” added Bannister. “But that does mean the legislation would have to change.” He also suggested to see “how much of the biometrics we need to register to get the process going”. 

Facial recognition technology is now available on smartphones and cameras, he continues, but the technology for fingerprinting is “not so great yet”. So there could be an “interim step” during which instead of two pieces of biometric IDs, only one piece of information would be required.

“But this is something for the European Union to get comfortable with,” he argues.

Delays

Another key aspect is time. A live testing at Prague airport, in the Czech Republic, found that passengers registered at an average processing time of 89 seconds.

Bannister says at the moment it takes between one and two minutes, and generally 90 seconds, to clear a car in Dover.

“If the registration process takes up to two minutes per person, that’s eight minutes for a car of four people, plus two minutes for the car to get everything done, so that’s ten minutes per vehicle compared to a minute and a half. Whilst it may not seem like a  tremendous addition per person”, he argued, this would lead to tailbacks “outside the port and throughout Kent.”

Infrastructure changes?

Last summer for the holiday season the port increased police capacity as an interim measure because a surge in traffic was expected after two years of pandemic.

In the coming years, Bannister says, the port plans to double permanent border facilities, from 5 to 10 booths, a “major infrastructure project”. The EES will be introduced against the existing controls but will ultimately have to match the design of the new facilities.

“Until we see the technology and the processes, it is very difficult, or it’s impossible, for us to know what sort of infrastructure changes we may need to make,” the CEO added. 

Although EU citizens are exempt from these checks, the port is currently not planning to create separate EU and non-EU lanes. Bannister said it will be more efficient to “try and get everybody through much faster” but this may be reconsidered if it is seen as beneficial.

Who decides and who pays?

The Local asked the European Commission about the implementation of EES at UK departure points like Dover, and they told us: “The Entry/Exit System (EES) is an automated system that the EU Member States need to implement for their own borders.”

The ‘member state’ in this instance is France, so we asked the French Interior Ministry, who told us: “The installation of EES gates it is not mandatory: it is up to the manager of each border crossing point to decide whether to use it.

“The French and British administrations are therefore exchanging with these managers on this subject in order to gather their analysis of the need.”

But Bannister said that it is not obvious whether French or UK authorities are responsible for the physical changes at Dover because the  Le Touquet Treaty is “not terribly clear on who pays for which bits of infrastructure”. 

Bannister says he is expecting an invitation to travel to France for a demonstration of the technology and that he would be “delighted to host a trial to see how it works in the Dover context.”

“My biggest concern is that we will get a process with technology thrust upon us and be told to get on with it” and that the result will be “significant congestion throughout Kent.”

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