How did a nation squarely on the Greenwich Meridian end up sharing time with Germany? And should it switch back? Spanish lawmakers must reckon with conflicting economic and political cues to answer these pressing questions.
By Roshni Rangwani
Many tourists in Spain remark on its leisurely pace of life: midmorning cigarette breaks are considered a basic human right, dinnertime could be well-past 9pm, and businesses still defend the jealousy-inducing siesta. Far fewer of them realise that this schedule is a legacy of Spain’s fascist past and has been a source of fierce debate in recent years. In 1942, the country’s dictator, Francisco Franco, shifted Spain into Central European Time in a ploy to show support for the Nazis. When glancing at a map, this doesn’t make much sense. Despite the fact that the Greenwich Meridian passes through it, Spain is an hour ahead of the U.K. but in sync with countries as far east as Hungary. The biannual switch to and from Daylight Saving only worsens the distortion. Seven decades on from the decision and grappling with a persistent recession, the Spanish government has offered a range of rationales both for and against a shift back to a more natural time zone—illustrating a novel conflict between biological realities and the interests of business and politics.
Several studies have concluded that Spaniards labour under a ‘perpetual jet lag’. According to a 2013 report by the ominously named parliamentary committee on the “Rationalisation of Hours, the Reconciliation of Personal, Family Life and Professional Life and Responsibility”, time zone “negatively affects many measures of productivity, such as absenteeism, stress, work accidents and school dropout rates.” The WHO concurs, concluding that Spaniards sleep an hour less than the European average each night. As the government deregulates worker protection in the wake of its 2014 recession, more firms than ever are axing the afternoon nap—essentially meaning Spanish adults spend up to 11 hours preoccupied with work, much of it at sluggish productivity.
In addition to worker productivity, tourism is another focal point of the timezone debate. At 12% of the 2019 GDP, this sector is the leading engine of Spain’s recovery (pre-COVID, at least). Interestingly, its firms are among those that have lobbied most vehemently for both sides of the time zone trouble. How can this be? Recent research from the London School of Economics on tourist behaviour sheds a clue. They conclude that “time zone differences have a stronger effect on tourism than geographical distance”, which means that, at the margin, a holidaymaker will pick a location in the same time zone further away from them over a closer one requiring jetlag.
Not surprisingly, resorts popular with visitors from the U.K., who comprise the largest single tourist group in Spain, favor a switch to GMT. The Balearic Islands by contrast, which are popular with French and German tourists, prefer the present scenario. In fact, this eastern territory has even floated a counterproposal to move time forward another hour, effectively preponing sunrise so that tourists have more sunshine-filled waking hours. The Canary Islands, so far the only Spanish enclave on GMT, is another tourist hotspot against the change. In contrast to other resorts, however, they fear a negative effect on domestic travellers. Currently, all news channels are required to single out the Canaries every time reports are made. “We would lose our constant presence in the Spanish media, with the concomitant impact on our branding. What is the value, in advertising terms, of being mentioned in each time check?”, asked a regional government head fretfully.
A related problem is ease of business in the face of time differences. The growing need for instant decision-making and responsive customer service means that even a one hour time lag could theoretically be a significant detriment. Considering that France and Germany alone account for over 25% of Spanish exports, harmonising with the rest of Europe may well be in Spain’s interest. Alternatively, law-makers could look westward into less important but rapidly expanding ventures in Latin America. Although Spain does not trade in great volumes in this region, it has a particularly strong foothold there in terms of FDI (around a fifth of total Spanish FDI in recent years). Differences in timezone have been demonstrated to have a significant and negative impact on bilateral FDI in several studies (Stein). Thus, the timezone decision may boil down to the relative value of investing in foreign markets to bring about longer term benefits over the potential immediate benefits of increases in intra-European trade.
Lawmakers must square possible economic benefits with the elephant in the room: the necessity for debate at all stems from a deeply painful and divisive period in Spanish history. The shadow Franco casts over Spanish politics even today is impossible to avoid, especially given the astounding electoral progress in 2020 of far-right parties drawing on his ideologies. Thus, Spanish leaders must also ask themselves whether the short-term chaos of reverting back to GMT could help banish unwelcome memories–or simply draw more attention to them. □
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