The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fascism helped create a time zone oddity in Spain. 70 years later, it may finally be undone.

It may not surprise you to learn that Spaniards view time differently. An American visitor to Spain would quickly note that a local’s dinnertime isn’t often until 9 p.m. or later. After that, drinks at a bar or television-watching at home could last till 1 a.m. on a weeknight. To cope, some office workers will take both a midmorning coffee break and a midafternoon snooze — the jealousy-inducing “siesta.”

What’s perhaps more surprising is the news that this seemingly idyllic schedule is viewed as a problem by many in Spain. And many place the blame on a time zone that is a relic of Spain’s fascist past.

After months of speculation, Employment Minister Fátima Báñez announced this week that the government is working on a plan to get more workers out of the office at 6 p.m., rather than being stuck at work until 8 or so, as many currently are. Báñez said that one important part of that policy under consideration is a switch from Central European Time (CET) to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), under which the clocks would be put back permanently by one hour.

Take a look at a map and it is clear why. Shouldn’t Spain be in the same time zone as Britain, Ireland and Portugal, all relatively close to its longitude, rather than the time zone that stretches as far east as Poland or Norway’s border with Russia?

Well, yes, of course, it probably should be. And, in fact, when the country first standardized its time in 1900 after using solar time for centuries, it used GMT. It was only during World War II, in 1940, that Spain’s fascist leader, Francisco Franco, changed the time zone to CET so that the country could be line with Nazi Germany and its occupied lands. After the war, Franco stayed in power until the 1970s. The clocks were never changed back.

An example of the strange nature of the time zone can be seen in Galicia, in the far northwest of Spain, where the sun doesn’t rise until 9 a.m. in the winter. Only the Canary Islands, which sit about 60 miles west of Morocco, are granted the use of Western European Time, which is the same as GMT.

Such seemingly odd time zone policies aren’t unusual. As WorldViews has noted before, there’s no central body that coordinates time zones according to science. Time zones are political decisions. That’s why Russia has 11 time zones but China has just one. It’s why North Korea announced last year that it was setting the clocks back by half an hour for no reason, and why Nepal is the only country to have a time zone that is set to 45 minutes past the hour.

But even if these time zones seem arbitrary, they affect how people live.

And many suggest that the unusual schedules kept by Spaniards — the long working hours, the late nights, the coffee breaks, the siestas — are a result of being in the wrong time zone. Humans are naturally built to understand the time of day by the amount of light, the reasoning goes, but the clocks told a different time — throwing people’s sleeping patterns out of sync with their working habits. Worse still, many of Spain’s social traditions were set while the country was still agrarian, and many farmers worked according to a solar clock.

A nice siesta may help deal with a long day, but the modern business world frowns upon the practice, essentially meaning that many Spanish adults end up working 11-hour days.

In 2013, a parliamentary subcommittee studying the dramatic-sounding “Rationalization of Hours, the Reconciliation of Personal, Family Life and Professional Life and Responsibility” released a report that proposed a return to GMT. It found that all sorts of ills in the Spanish economy could be blamed on the time zone, which created a kind of widespread jet lag across society, with the average Spaniard sleeping an hour less than the World Health Organization recommends.

The time zone “negatively affects many measures of productivity, such as absenteeism, stress, work accidents and school dropout rates,” the report noted. Even Spain’s long-standing gender inequality could be partly attributed to the long hours expected from breadwinners.

It remains unclear whether Spain will actually make the leap. Changing the time zone itself should be relatively simple. Russia changed its comparatively complicated multi-zone system in 2011 — and changed it back in 2014. Spain’s governing People’s Party has the support of the opposition Socialist party and the Ciudadanos (Citizens) party.

But changing an entire culture may be a little more complicated. “Can you imagine eating at 1, leaving work at 6 p.m. and being in bed before 10 p.m.?” the Spanish newspaper ABC asked in 2013.

Maybe not.

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