Daylight Saving Time: When Switzerland Stood Apart as a 'Lost Island' in the Heart of Europe
This weekend, when the clocks change at 2 a.m. on Sunday, citizens in Switzerland and throughout Europe will retrieve what was taken from them in March. "Summer time" ends after seven months, and "standard time" takes its place.
However, Swiss voters narrowly rejected tampering with cosmic rhythms 45 years ago. On a polling day (May 28, 1978) that also featured measures about car-free Sundays, abortion rights, and bread prices, 52% of voters rejected the "time law"External link.
Why the hesitation? The explanations included "disadvantages for farmers" (who preferred longer mornings in winter to longer evenings in summer), "ill effects on children," and the simple statement that "things work fine without summer time," according to a post-vote studyExternal link by the University of Bern. Farmers, who had initiated the referendum, flocked to vote "no," and elderly voters also abstained; younger, better-educated voters predominated.
The Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) newspaper summarized several aspects of the vote the next morning, which will be recognizable to those who follow contemporary Swiss politics.
It stated that, among other things, time had succeeded in creating a "Röstigraben," or linguistic divide, between the German-speaking and French-speaking regions of Switzerland. This was primarily because of the "constant annoyance" of train timetables and television schedules that were not in line with those of neighboring France, which had already implemented daylight saving time (DST).
The NZZ stated that "the no vote doesn't come as a surprise to anyone acquainted with the current mood in the [canton], where we see a wave of rejection of anything coming from [federal capital] Bern," in the libertarian-loving Valais, despite its border with Italy (also DST).
The Swiss People's Party expressed "great satisfaction" upon finally learning of the outcome. The party claimed that it was the first time that a European people had been able to reject the "imposition from above" of a change in the time of day. It was also a vote of "solidarity" with farmers.
However, there remained a risk that Switzerland might fall (literally) behind as more and more countries started using daylight savings time. Following the voting, the Christian Democratic Party expressed concern that we could end up like a "lost island in Europe."
The possible drawbacks were also quickly realized by the public; in November 1979, a surveyExternal link published in the Journal de Genève revealed that 73% of respondents supported altering the clocks, up from 48% eighteen months earlier. It was nearly hard to avoid adopting DST when it was implemented in 1980 by Germany and Austria. Therefore, the Berne authorities changed the statute once more, and Switzerland implemented the modification in 1981 when the People's Party's attempt to hold a second referendum in that year failed to get enough signatures.
When he was an adolescent in 1978, Jürg Niederhauser claims to have remembered the vote. He is currently in charge of corporate affairs at the Federal Institute of MetrologyExternal link (METAS) in Bern, Switzerland, which is in charge of "all issues related to measurement" in the country, including setting "official Swiss time," nearly 50 years after it was established. A Swiss contribution to Coordinated Universal TimeExternal link, which is centralized in Paris, is also made possible by METAS's five atomic clocks.
Niederhauser says he must constantly break the "disappointing" news to journalists that METAS has "nothing much to do; there's no button to push so that the clocks go back – it's all automated" with regard to this weekend.
In the same way, not much has to be done by the public or business 45 years later. While some things, like night trains, require coordination, the transition is currently well-oiled. According to Niederhauser, the majority of problems still arise at home when people neglect to change their mechanical clocks or watches. However, a lot of digital devices—such as laptops, phones, and navigation systems—update automatically.
But the problem persists. Every year, a plethora of articles concerning the time change are created; the comment areas beneath them display strong opinions. A record 4.6 million comments were sent in to a public consultation on DST held by the European Union a few years ago; 84% of respondents wanted to do away with it.
And why the interest? Time inevitably has an impact on everyone, according to Niederhauser. "We have set times for when we wake up and go to work; shifting these times, particularly in the spring, can be difficult and inconvenient. Everyone is opinionated about it.
Opinions have political ramifications, as do health and economic studies on the implications of time changes. In March 2019, the EU Parliament decided to do away with DST in response to public feedback. And that still is the plan—that is, assuming nations can agree on how to carry it out. Niederhauser claims that the EU's inability to control whether member states should switch to "eternal summer time" or "eternal standard time" if DST is abolished is the root of the problem in Brussels.
In order to increase tourism, southern EU nations like Greece, Italy, and Spain support summer time; northern nations, like Germany and Finland, favor standard time, "probably because their geographic location means they have long hours of light on summer nights anyway," according to Niederhauser.
Regarding Switzerland, it would undoubtedly behave as its closest neighbors do in order to avoid the "major economic disadvantages" of misalignment, as stated in a previous parliament speech by Simonetta Sommaruga, the transport minister at the time.
However, Niederhauser notes that the neighbors' action may spark new political discussions. Like in Europe, the Swiss government can decide to abolish DST, but not to alter the standard time. For instance, switching to "eternal summer time" would require a parliamentary vote and possibly a national referendum similar to the one that took place in 1978.