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Is Uber legal in Brussels? The capital’s cab drivers that have fought tooth and nail against the online taxi-hailing service would answer this question with a resounding ‘No’. The real answer is a little more complicated.
When it comes to UberPop, the app that connects customers with non-professional drivers using their own cars, the capital’s disgruntled cabbies are right on the money. After a complaint by conventional taxi operator Taxi Verts, the Brussels Court ruled in September of last year that the Californian start-up had to shut down its most popular service in the European capital. Uber complied and instead turned its focus to UberX, the more expensive service it had launched a couple of weeks before which only uses professionally licensed chauffeurs who’ve passed an exam on local knowledge. Before the ruling, about a thousand unlicensed drivers had been using UberPop to connect with clientele in need of a ride. In banning the app, Brussels followed in the footsteps of other European capitals like Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid and Berlin, all of whom had ruled against the service before and in some cases have slapped the multi-billion dollar company with fines for operating illegally (in June of this year a French court ordered Uber to cough up €800,000 euros).
For a while it seemed the verdict wouldn’t hinder Uber’s activities in the heart of Europe for more than a couple of months. After all, Brussels mobility minister Pascal Smet expected to have his ‘Taxi plan’ implemented by January 2016. Approved by the Brussels government, the aim was to modernize the entire taxi sector and provide a legal framework for alternatives such as ridesharing to exist alongside more traditional taxi services. Reports of Brussels becoming the very first European capital to embrace and legalize Uber flooded the blogosphere. By February minister Smet was criticized for not following through however and since then a hush has fallen over the project.
Things looked up again for Uber – and other businesses in the ‘sharing economy’, such as Airbnb – halfway through this year, when it found the European Commission in its corner. The latter issued a statement saying that ‘absolute bans’ of such activities should only be used as a ‘last resort’. Though not binding, the advice belongs to a set of new guidelines drawn up by the Commission to stimulate Internet-related services throughout Europe. It added that any restrictions imposed upon such businesses by EU-members should be proportionate to the public interest at stake. In Brussels that interest is undeniable. By now the number of UberX users in the capital has caught up to the number of people that were originally using UberPop (about 50,000) before its forced stop. In May of 2016 the company felt confident enough to launch UberBLACK, their swankiest version with more luxurious cars and suited-up chauffeurs. Both UberX and UberBLACK swim in legally gray waters in Belgium.
Barely a week after the European Commission’s statement, the Dutch-language Commercial Court of Brussels delivered another verdict upholding the UberPop ban. The ruling concerned a complaint filed last year by a traditional taxi service that saw its profits decline when the not-yet-banned UberPop took over a share of the market at Zaventem, Brussels’ international airport. The Court’s ruling that the low-cost app should be considered a full-on taxi service (meaning that it cannot operate outside of the restrictions that apply to other cab companies) came with a noteworthy remark: the regulations in place in Flanders and Zaventem could be in conflict with European law. Keeping that in mind along with the Commission’s support and the drafted ‘Taxi plan’, Brussels could well become the first European capital to legalize Uber and send a message to the rest of the reluctant mainland.