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19th Sep 2018

Magazine

Sharing economy: Lobbyists educate EU officials

  • EU commissioner for research and innovation Carlos Moedas (r) meeting with Travis Kalanick, the co-founder of Uber. (Photo: European Commission)

The lobbying power of companies that count themselves among the sharing economy is still relatively small, but growing rapidly.

Take Uber, famous for its ride-sharing app. In 2015, the latest year for which it provided information to the EU's transparency register, Uber spent between €400,000 and €499,999 (companies are not required to give a specific figure) on lobbying activities in Brussels.

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  • EU commissioner for the digital single market Andrus Ansip (l) meets Frederic Mazzella, the founder and CEO of BlaBlaCar. (Photo: European Commission)

Uber's EU lobbying budget is comparably tiny to that of Google, for example, which spent over €4 billion in that same year. What is striking, however, is the budget's growth.

In 2014, its expenditures amounted to between €50,000 and €99,999. This means that in the course of a single year, Uber's lobbying war chest has quadrupled at the very least. It may have even increased tenfold, if taking into account the minimum amount for 2014 versus the maximum amount for 2015.

It is also impressive to note that since Jean-Claude Juncker became head of the European Commission in November 2014, Uber representatives have met with commissioners, their cabinet members, or the highest civil servant in the directorates-general fifty times.

That is only eight meetings fewer than Facebook, which spends at least twice as much on lobbying in Brussels.

Airbnb, the other best-known member of the sharing economy, spent between €100,000 and €199,999 in 2016, up from between €50,000 and €99,999 in 2015. It met with high-level commission staff twelve times. However, its number of declared lobbyists dropped from six to two.

European Collaborative Economy Forum

The changes could be due to the birth of the European Collaborative Economy Forum, with a lobbying budget of between €25,000 and €49,999. It is a business association that aims to "help innovative tech companies find a voice to policymakers", according to the organisation's CEO, Luc Delany.

Delany told EUobserver in an interview that he left Facebook four years ago to set up his own consultancy firm. Speaking to former colleagues and friends in the app business, he felt there was a need for a platform to "get the discussion going in Brussels" on the sharing economy.

The forum chose the name European Collaborative Economy Forum instead of European Sharing Economy Forum, because the European Commission has adopted that phrase.

"We decided that, since our audience was Brussels, we would have liked to reflect the language that Brussels was using," said Delany, accepting that sharing economy was "more common parlance".

"We started off with the European Collaborative Economy Forum [in 2015] as a place for discussion between members, with policymakers, to discuss the current and future policy landscape. So no lobbying, no position papers, no agreed views, it was actually all about, well, how do we amongst us consider the collaborative economy," he said.

Uber and Airbnb are among its founding members, but the association also has in its ranks companies that offer access to boats (Boataffair), shared office space (Seats2Meet), and car-sharing (SnappCar).

This year, the association will move into "a little bit more of an advocacy role", said Delany.

He added that the forum has been speaking to members of the European Parliament about the first version of a non-binding report about the collaborative economy, drafted by centre-left Italian MEP Nicola Danti. Danti did not respond to a request for an interview.

No Wild West guys

Delany also saw a task in "educating" policymakers, because there were "some common misconceptions" about the collaborative economy.

"These guys are accused of being in the Wild West and flouting laws and regulations, that kind of thing, but the reality is that the general construct of business regulation applies to sharing or collaborative economy companies as much as it does to anybody else," Delany said.

"We are already part of economy. The laws that apply there still apply," he added. "We just have to look at: how do we re-interpret and consider these companies now that the scale of this operation has changed and it's become a competitor to traditional services."

Several companies that see themselves as part of the collaborative economy have gone to court to challenge local bans.

"We're not calling for new regulation to particularly suit the collaborative economy," said Delany. "What we are asking for is existing European legislation to be applied correctly," he noted, adding that some local laws that were adopted in response to the sharing economy were protectionist, and created "unnatural barriers" to enter the market.

The solution

Delany also opposed the idea that sharing economy companies are responsible for a trend towards more self-employment.

"The problems about a shifting European work force, potential contributions to social security, those concerning issues, are actually part of a very large across-the-whole-economy shift, not specific to the collaborative economy," he argued.

Instead, driving for Uber or renting out a room through Airbnb can help people make some extra money, the lobbyist noted. "We see the collaborative economy as a solution for many people who are underworked, out of work. It's a way back into the work force."

Delany said that over the past few years, he has seen EU policymakers becoming less concerned and more open to the sharing economy. "I think they have changed their views from being somewhat sceptical and mistrusting, to being welcoming and optimistic in general."

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2017 Business in Europe Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of our Business in Europe magazine.

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