The Dutch politician and European Commission vice president Neelie Kroes is calling a Brussels’ court decision banning the peer-to-peer car service UberPOP after complaints about unfair competition “crazy,” and suggesting of the title of the local transportation official pushing for a crackdown, “maybe it should be ‘anti-Mobility Minister.’”
The debate that has reached a boiling point quickly. The California-based Uber only launched UberPOP service in Brussels at the tail end of February, making that Belgian city the first in the world where Uber introduced ride-sharing (what’s called UberX in many U.S. cities) before rolling out its black car service, the kind that relies upon professional drivers. Anyone can drive UberPOP after a background check and limited training. “You might,” said Uber in pitching the service to Brusselites, “just get driven around Brussels by one of your friends!” But the court has likely ended that possibility. Under the ruling, the company is slated to be fined for each UberPOP pickup at the punishing rate of €10,000.
At issue in Brussels and in other European cities, including Paris, is how to respond to the gap between peer-to-peer car services and existing rules on safety, licensing, and scheduling that apply to taxis and other hired rides. Live and let live? Fine them into oblivion? Attempt to close the legal gap immediately?
Responding to an order to shut down in Brussels late last month, Djump, a “social ridesharing” company based around voluntary donations, has argued that lawmakers must consider the changing times. Complains the company, “Trying to define Djump and place it in a category from a legislation written nearly 20 years ago…is a difficult task.” Legislation and regulation, they insist, “have to be amended when new technologies emerge.” But that leaves unanswered what any new rules should be. Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business and NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress has advocated for “a safe harbor” where services like UberPOP and Djump “can operate legally while we gather information about the right division of responsibilities between the marketplace and the regulators.”
Some had hoped that that safe harbor could have been, for now, Brussels’ streets. Brigitte Grouwels, the local transportation official slammed by Kroes, explained on CNN International yesterday what while she believed that car-hiring apps have merit, and could even help drive down her city’s high taxi prices, “it would have been a better idea if Uber had sought contact with the taxi sector to see how they could work together.” But no, said the Belgian minister. “They came in this market not respecting the rules that there are for this economic sector.” Kroes, the European Commission official, was incredulous: “No one is saying that Uber drivers should not pay taxes, follow rules, and protect consumers. But banning Uber does not give them the chance to do the right thing!”
But Brussels’ taxi incumbents, meanwhile, have advocated for cracking down posthaste. Local cab associations had threatened to stop following local rules this month if Uber wasn’t required to obey by them. A parallel argument is in play in the American Midwest, where cabbies, cab associations, and cab industry lenders are suing the city of Chicago on the grounds that by breaking a pact to regulate the taxi industry, the city risks decimating the value of taxi medallions upon which lives and loans have been built.
Neelie Kroes, the European Commission vice president, has been pushing to modernize Europe across the board. She has fought for a unified telecommunications market in the European Union that would eliminate roaming charges on mobile phones. “Slamming the door in Uber’s face doesn’t solve anything,” she argued. “It sends a bad anti-tech message about Brussels, which is already in the 4G dark ages.” She addressed “anti-Mobility Minister” Grouwels directly: “It isn’t protecting jobs Madame, it is just annoying people!” Kroes then called upon people to tweet their displeasure with the hashtag #UberIsWelcome, tweets to which the Brussels transportation official responded with a pointer to an explainer posted on her Facebook page: “We want to avoid a ‘race to the bottom,’” it reads in part, according to Google Translate. ”We say no to the total absence of regulation.”
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.