The World

Spain May Go Back in Time

A couple make a siesta in the Retiro Garden, in Madrid 10 June 2005.

Photo by PEDRO ARMESTRE/AFP/Getty Images

The AP reports that the Spanish parliament is considering a proposal to move the country’s clocks back one hour, to put it on British time:

Until the 1940s, Spain was on the same time as Britain and Portugal, which are on roughly the same [longitude]. But when Nazi-occupied France switched to German time, Spain’s Franco dictatorship followed suit.

“The fact that for more than 71 years Spain has not been in its proper time zone means … we sleep almost an hour less than the World Health Organization recommends,” the lawmakers wrote. “All this has a negative effect on productivity, absenteeism, stress, accidents and school drop-out rates.”


Some suspect that some of the temporal behaviors we think of as quintessential aspects of Spanish culture, are in reality simply the result of Franco’s move. As an article in the Atlantic in March put it, “the time zone issue explains why everything in Spain happens later, from meal times to the scheduling of sporting events to broadcast entertainment (primetime here doesn’t start until 10 p.m.). The people… still live according to solar time, it’s just the clocks that are out of whack.”


The move might make logical sense, but time politics are often fraught. Hugo Chavez left his country mostly confused when he attempted to adjust Venezuela’s clocks by half an hour, but couldn’t quite decide if he wanted them forward or backward. The move from 11 time zones to 9 was one of the more concrete legacies of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, though he has continued to squabble with Vladimir Putin over the elimination of daylight savings time.


Americans didn’t always adjust well in the late 19th century when pressure from railroad countries led the government to adopt a national time, as I wrote in Smithsonian earlier this year:

The U.S. national time standard, for instance, didn’t emerge until 1883, when it was adopted by the railroads, which needed to maintain common timetables. Before that, cities largely kept their own local time, and many were not happy to have big government and big railroads force standardization on them. “Let the people of Cincinnati stick to the truth as it is written by the sun, moon and stars,” editorialized one newspaper when the changeover was going into effect.

The standardization of time around the world has accelerated by globalization in recent years. Mexico, for instance, adopted daylight savings time shortly after NAFTA as economic ties with the United States were growing. As I discussed in my article, some experts believe cultural perceptions of time are being increasingly homogenized as well.

In Spain’s case, the authorities have been working to put the country’s schedule more in line with international standards as it struggles to escape from a crippling recession. This has included deregulating business hours to discourage the traditional afternoon siesta, which has been on its way out for a while now in any case.

The country’s quirky schedule, and out of whack time zone, may be luxuries the country can’t afford anymore.