Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Daylight saving time serves as a reminder that the Continent’s clock lines are terribly illogical.
Is it summertime or wintertime? Since Sunday, no one in Turkey has been entirely sure.
Following a decree originating from the country’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s government has officially delayed the start of daylight saving by two weeks. Like the rest of Europe, the country was supposed to turn back its clocks in the early hours of Sunday, October 25. Elections coming up on November 1 prompted the move, as the government reckoned that more evening light might ensure a better turnout.
But even in a country with a tradition of occasionally delaying daylight saving a day or so, the two-week delay has come across as more than a little Pharaonic in its ambition. There’s another problem: no one seems to have informed the country’s automatically adjusting clocks. This means almost every cellphone and computer jumped out of sync on Sunday morning, causing minor chaos as Turks struggled to work out whether their clocks had changed automatically or not. On Twitter the hashtag #saatkac—“What’s the time?”—trended as people reveled in Erdoğan’s King Canute moment.
While Turkey’s mishap was extreme, clock changes are not uncommonly fraught times in Europe. In the U.K., daylight saving itself is a mildly political issue. People in Southern England generally like the idea of dropping it and keeping their lighter afternoons, while the northerly Scots tend to be in favor of it.
Meanwhile, in Finland this year, the National Institute for Health and Welfare is suggesting that the country give up daylight saving altogether. Instead, it should just move to Central European Standard Time. This would put them in the same time zone as both their Swedish and Finnish neighbors and as Poland, which lies directly south on a similar longitude. It would mean leaving Eastern European Standard Time, whose narrower time zone stretches south through the Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine, and ultimately south to Greece.
Finland is more or less on a line with these countries, but none of them except Estonia have quite the same drastic dearth of winter sunshine. In Helsinki, after all, the time span from dawn to dusk drops below six hours in late December. Finland’s transport ministry has nonetheless come out against the change, pointing out that Finnish summer time “reduces the incidence of elk-vehicle collisions.”
Such drastic changes are conceivable, because if you remove national frontiers from the map, Europe’s time-zone borders look like they’ve been drawn by a drunk. Created by politics as much as geography, Europe’s time borders make North America’s look wonderfully regular and logical. The most populous main part of Russia, for example, is out of step time-wise with all of its neighbors. Were you to travel south from Sochi along the Black Sea through Abkhazia and Georgia to Turkey (a route that’s currently closed), you’d have to turn your clock one hour forward and then two hours back within the same half day’s drive.
It’s Western Europe, and specifically Spain, that nonetheless gets the worst deal. On a properly slanted map, most of it lies to the west of Great Britain, and it naturally belongs in the Western European zone along with the U.K. and Ireland, Portugal, and Iceland (which could actually do with its own time zone—but that’s another story). Since 1942, however, it has run on Central European Time, a legacy of Franco’s dictatorship that has somehow hung tenaciously on.
The result is that Spain gets evening light far later than any other Mediterranean country, allegedly causing low productivity and even a form of constant jetlag. It could explain why Spain still keeps among the latest hours in the world. When you have to wait longer for dusk to cool the hot summer air, it makes slightly more sense to eat dinner at 10:30 p.m.
A bit of a time-zone and daylight-saving shake-up here and there could certainly do Europe a bit of good. We can just hope that, if changes are made in the future, someone remembers to remind the Continent’s automatic clocks.