The Brief – Time Bandits

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter. [Shutterstock]

Europe has fallen victim to a stunning heist since the beginning of the year, where our most precious and valuable asset has been stolen: time itself.

Take a look at a clock on your oven, microwave or other mains-connected device and the chances are that it will be running about six minutes slow. It’s not a late resurrection of the Millennium Bug, a prank or the result of a drunken attempt to cook a pizza.

It’s actually the knock-on effect of a row between Kosovo and Serbia over energy supply. Their spat has gotten so bad that 113GWh of power, enough to power 10,000 homes all year, has gone missing somewhere.

That means that the frequency of the electricity grid, which extends across much of mainland Europe, is off kilter, confusing our appliances that synchronise their time from the socket. (To hear the Commission’s response to Georgi Gotev’s query, watch from 16:24 here).

So why is the juice on the loose?

Both sides have blamed each other, with Kosovo saying its northern part, populated mostly by ethnic Serbs, refuses to recognise the central government so power supply is operated at a loss. Serbia says Kosovo is siphoning off electricity illegally.

One bright spark suggested that the power might actually be used for Bitcoin-mining, which needs a huge amount of power to run powerful servers and generate the crypto-currency.

If true, it means we’ve stumbled into a Philip K. Dick-esque reality, in which time itself is stolen and cashed in so as to make money. We already live in a world where gangsters kidnap Bitcoin miners to steal their digital riches, so it’s not such a far-fetched idea.

Plausible conspiracy theories aside, the grid dispute is just another thorn in the side of Western Balkans relations, which remain significant, despite recently renewed EU hopes and a tour by Commission boss Jean-Claude Juncker himself.

Serbia’s president may be open to “all solutions” but formally recognising Pristina’s independence is still not on the table, and a recent meeting of Balkan leaders yielded nothing of substance on the really controversial issues.

Having our precious minutes stolen might just be the wake-up call the EU needs to roll its sleeves up properly in the region. A good start may be full EU recognition of Kosovo, according to one prominent Slovenian MEP.

Juncker’s insistence that all territorial issues be resolved before EU membership can be granted isn’t exactly water-tight, given that five of the current members still don’t recognise Kosovo. The 28 members (Brexit hasn’t happened yet, remember, 10,000 hours and counting) can exert necessary influence only if they’re on the same page.

Our clocks will reset themselves once the grid is balanced again, so don’t rush to alter them just yet. Just as power operators rush to restore equilibrium, maybe it is time Europe’s institutions did the same at a political level.

Now all we have to do is get rid of Daylight Savings Time too

The Roundup

From TTIP to trade war in the space of no time at all. The EU has warned the UK not to listen to Trump’s siren song and seek bilateral exemptions, while Europe’s farmers fear a “Russia-style” scenario as a result.

Westminster finally admitted lost trade due to Brexit will nullify its so-called Brexit dividend. UK trade tsar Liam Fox called for an “economic Brexit not a political Brexit”. Hat-tip to Luxembourg PM Xavier Bettel for summing up the British position in the most succinct way to date.

While Italy’s Democratic Party threatens to tear itself apart over whether to get in bed with the 5-Star Movement or go into opposition, the chances of Beppe Grillo’s party and the Northern League having a bash at governing are becoming less unlikely.

Italy’s voters partly chose the populist option thanks to migration-stoked fears. Those same concerns helped put Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in power last year, and the Alpine Republic’s presidency of the EU later this year will focus on immigration and borders.

Meanwhile, France’s macroeconomic situation has improved and the Commision has moved it from the list of with “countries excessive imbalances” to the list of those with “macroeconomic imbalances”, together with Portugal and Bulgaria.

EU digital boss Mariya Gabriel has media gender stereotypes in her crosshairs, Spanish women went on an unprecedented strike to mark International Women’s Day and Europol has its first female boss.

Regional policy Commissioner Corina Cretu told Daniela Vincenti that cohesion funds should not be cut in the next EU budget. Tweets of the Week is out, watch it here.

Look out for…

Strasbourg week. US trade tariffs will feature heavily and Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa is the latest to give his five centimes on the future of Europe as part of an ongoing series.

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