Tuesday

25th Sep 2018

Bad week in Europe for Uber

  • A taxi driver needs several permits to operate. UberPop drivers do not (Photo: drpavloff)

It has been a bad week in Europe for Uber, the company behind the app UberPop, which allows travellers to buy relatively cheap car rides.

Two European courts banned the service, France will ban the service on 1 January 2015, and a regional minister from Brussels announced tough measures.

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The service is controversial because UberPop drivers generally do not have the permits required of taxi drivers, giving them an unfair advantage according to some, and making them a danger to the safety of their passengers in the eyes of others.

A Dutch court ruled that the UberPop service is illegal and the company should cease its activities in the Netherlands, a Spanish judge made a similar judgement while in France a court said UberPop may be illegal, but fell short of banning it.

On Monday (15 December), ahead of a protest by French taxi drivers against UberPop, the French interior ministry announced it will ban the app as of next year.

UberPop is currently available in the capital Amsterdam and the country's second largest city, Rotterdam, as well as twenty other cities in the European Union.

The ruling follows a move by Dutch deputy minister of Infrastructure Wilma Mansveld, banning UberPop. Uber had requested to overturn the ban, but the court ruled in favour of Mansveld.

According to the court, Uber's argument that its service is more like “a cousin of carpooling” is invalid. What Uber offers, is clearly a taxi service under Dutch law, so its drivers need to abide by the Dutch rules for taxi drivers, the court said.

A taxi driver needs several permits, a diploma and a declaration of good health in order to operate.

“I have to have four different cards with me”, taxi driver Yaser Rahman told this website. Rahman has been a taxi driver in Amsterdam for sixteen years.

“I have nothing against UberPop drivers, as long as they also are required to have the same permits.”

Uber emphasized that it has its own system to check their drivers, among them an interview with Uber personnel and a review system that allows users to warn others about bad drivers.

But the court ruled that “that protection is by no means equal” to the independent quality guarantees the Dutch taxi rules give.

The court ruled that every time in the next two years the Dutch authorities catch someone driving passengers under the UberPop scheme without a taxi permit, the company will receive a fine of at least €10,000. The maximum fine is €100,000.

Uber, which has been valued as high as €32.5 billion, has said it will appeal the decision.

Uber has its European office in Amsterdam, in a brand new glass building in the centre of the city.

A spokesperson came down to the reception on Thursday morning to tell this website they were “very busy”, and a request for an interview was not answered by Monday morning.

Ban or adapt?

Authorities all across Europe are facing a conundrum: do they try to ban services like UberPop or change the law to adapt to these new technological developments?

In Denmark the jury is still out on that question.

“Government authorities are looking into it for the moment”, Copenhagen's mayor Morten Kabell told this website at an event in Brussels organised by Friends of Europe.

“Are the drivers insured? Are the passengers insured? What about other cars?”

Even if the insurance and competition issues are resolved, Kabell is also worried about the environmental impact.

“The idea is good”, said Kabell, who is trying to reduce car ownership in his city. But it depends on whether UberPop will compete with privately owned cars or with public transport.

“If it only creates more cars on the street, then I will have to oppose it.”

There are some politicians in the Netherlands calling for integration of UberPop drivers in the official taxi system.

Deputy minister Mansveld is currently evaluating if the taxi law needs to be changed.

A similar review of the law had been announced in November by the regional government of Brussels, in Belgium.

The region's mobility minister Pascal Smet was planning an update of the law to mainstream Uber, a spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal, pointing to how Airbnb, a similar service for accommodation, now has also been integrated in the region's tourism sector.

“That’s what we want to do with Uber as well — if they want to comply and pay taxes like everybody else they’re welcome to be a part of the Brussels taxi sector.”

However, Smet announced tough measures against Uber at the end of last week.

“New initiatives like Uber are welcome, as long as they accommodate to the applicable rules. Talks with Uber have had no results, so we will have to take a different approach”, Smet told Belgian newspaper De Morgen.

The mobility minister announced he will ask the region's Computer crime unit to block the website, and announced an increase in undercover inspectors, who will try to catch UberPop drivers red-handed.

Uber had tried to dodge such inspections by blacklisting credit card numbers which they suspected of belonging to an inspector, Smet said.

Missing Kroes

Meanwhile Uber may have lost an ally elsewhere in Brussels.

The former EU digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes had been a firm supporter of Uber.

When a court for the Brussels region in April announced a ban on Uber, Kroes issued a statement describing herself as “outraged” by the “crazy court decision”.

Since 1 November, the European Commission has two commissioners dealing with digital affairs, vice-president Anders Ansip (Digital Single Market) and Gunter Oettinger (Digital Economy).

However, both refrained from commenting on Uber's set-backs this week.

A spokesperson for the Commission said it “has always supported the development of new and innovative mobility services with the purpose of increasing transparency and choice and reduce costs for consumers”.

However, he added that “new business models in the field of passenger transport ... cannot be used to circumvent national rules”.

Indicating a policy shift in the European Commission, questions on Uber are now being taken by officials in the transport department rather than those dealing with the digital agenda.

A commission spokesperson confirmed: “Transport is now in the lead on this file.”.

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