Bill Jamieson: Now the EU wants to mess with our clocks!

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The European Union plans to issue a new Directive stopping countries from moving their clocks back and forward in autumn and spring, writes Bill Jamieson.

Befuddled by all that parliamentary voting? The 16 different amendments, the clamorous points of order, the Cabinet rebellions, the deadline and the deadline extension?

Under a new EU proposal, the UK would have to choose between GMT and BST

Under a new EU proposal, the UK would have to choose between GMT and BST

Well, here’s a simple question – and in a week of utter confusion, one we can all surely answer – what’s the time?

How simple. How straightforward. We all know the time. Or thought we did.

But amid the parliamentary mayhem on Brexit, there was a little reported development in Brussels. The European Commission, backed by the European Parliament, has ruled to abolish the bi-annual adjustment of clocks. For many years, we put our clocks an hour forward on the last Sunday in March, and moved them back an hour on the last Sunday in October.

But under the proposed new Directive, this will come to an end in 2021 and no twice-yearly alteration will be allowed. Every member state will have to stay in the same zone throughout the year.

It follows the compelling logic of harmonisation, one of the principal drivers of regulatory change within the EU. And from a regulatory point of view, it makes sense, of a sort. It has the merit of convenience: no more fiddling around with auntie Fionna’s antique mantlepiece clock and that retro bedside alarm that looked so cute on Not on the High Street.com.

And, to be fair, it’s not entirely out of the blue. There was a consultation. It was reported to have elicited four million replies. Amid all the distractions of the past two-and-a-half years, it was easy for the UK to miss. But 70 per cent of the responses were from Germany.

Now, this is hardly an issue of shattering importance. It is minuscule compared with the momentous matters decided by those 16 indicative votes. But I raise it by way of cautionary admonition. Just in case we thought that by voting to revoke Article 50, or staying within the regulatory umbrella of the EU, meant our relations with the EU would revert to some state of Arcadian harmony, pause awhile.

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EU members will have the right to choose whether to stay permanently on winter time or summer time. For the UK, this would mean either GMT – which would limit long evenings in the summer – or BST, which would result in darker mornings in the winter.

Here in Scotland, there has been an emphatic preference to avoid sending our children to school – and ourselves setting off to work – on pitch dark winter mornings. Putting the clocks back an hour in October suited our northern latitude, better surely than a centralised regulatory decree. And it was a matter where member parliaments could rule. After all, Scotland’s requirements were different from those, say of Portugal. Subsidiarity was allowed. Until now.

And it is fair to raise this because Scotland has shown an emphatic preference for moving the clocks back in October. Yet this week the SNP administration urged support for a motion calling for Article 50 to be revoked and that we stay in the Single Market and Customs Union.

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Yet why should the European Commission impose this? Equally, why for example, should it impose the controversial new copyright directive upon member states? Article 13 of the EU Copyright Directive sets out to control services that primarily exist to give the public access to protected works. Services such as Google and YouTube could be held responsible if their users upload films, TV programmes and music without permission. Arguments rage on both sides. But this is surely an issue best dealt with by subsidiarity – letting individual countries decide such matters or themselves.

It is directives such as these that have irked the UK for years, and will almost certainly continue to do so were we to opt for a softer Withdrawal Agreement. As it is, what passes for “the law of the land” has become an anachronism: even the change in the projected date for the UK’s mooted departure has been determined by Brussels and has the force of international law. Were the Commons not to pass the statutory instrument to change the date already in UK legislation, “it would not”, the Prime Minister admitted this week, “have any effect on the date of our exit”. EU law rules.

And so it would be in the matter of clocks. Disputes that many thought would be behind us would be back in front of us.

Whoever said, “what’s the time?” was the easiest question to answer may come to find the word “harmonisation” is anything but.