Drivers rage against Brussels’ Uber ban
An old law is being used to drive Uber and Heetch out of the Brussels taxi market.
Ride-hailing apps Uber and Heetch are hoping a noisy driver protest can head off a Brussels ban — with some help from local politicians.
A demonstration organized — at least in part — by ride-hailing platform Heetch brought traffic around the office of Brussels Minister President Rudi Vervoort to a standstill on Thursday as drivers pushed back against his decision to effectively ban app-based taxi services.
Between 1,500 and 2,000 drivers blocked a lane on the Brussels ring road, all the way from the busy Rue Belliard which runs through the EU quarter to Rogier.
“We’re not defending Uber or Heetch, or any other app,” said one driver, identifying himself as Brahim. “We’re defending ourselves, independent drivers. Even if the government is against Uber and wants to kick Uber out — we couldn’t care less. We just want our rights, our right to work.”
The snap protest — which gave users a taste of a city without ride-hailing platforms as drivers switched off their apps for the duration — came after Vervoort on Monday invoked legislation dating back decades to stop drivers from using apps to pick up rides via their smartphones.
After the ban was announced, Heetch rallied its users to protest against the government directly.
“As you know, Brussels’ government has announced that all drivers are banned from using their smartphones to carry out their work,” app company Heetch told its drivers in an email. “In other words, if the government maintains its position, THE RIDE-HAILING APP MARKET WILL DISAPPEAR!”
Vervoort argued Uber has been relying on a separate system for renting limousines to bypass an earlier ban on its low-cost UberPop service without abiding by the rules. “We can’t say: we’ll pretend that the legislation doesn’t exist,” he told RTBF, pointing at recent court battles.
His move followed pressure from the city’s traditional taxi firms, which do not use apps and have waged battle against Uber for years.
The scrap in Brussels is a throwback to the platform’s earlier struggles bedding down in European cities, a saga marked by court cases and opposition from traditional taxi firms which say the app model is driving them out of business and replacing their profession with an informal, precarious gig economy.
While some drivers have been controlled on the streets of the EU capital, nobody has been fined so far, according to the mobility department of the Brussels regional administration.
As Uber drivers converged near Brussels’ Gare Centrale, several dozen taxi drivers held a competing rally in front of the local parliament building, urging the government to stand its ground against Uber.
Not dead yet
As the backlash to Vervoort’s decision grows, he met the leadership of the Belgian Limousine Drivers’ Association — which represents Uber drivers — on Thursday afternoon.
In a related court battle, Belgium’s Constitutional Court is currently assessing whether drivers can use their phones to accept clients but a ruling is not expected for months.
That puts Uber and Heetch at odds with the local Brussels government over its decision to evoke old legislation dating back to 1995 now.
But the companies are not alone in opposing Vervoort’s move. Members of his own government are also wading in.
“Rather than wanting to enforce an archaic law,” the government should wait for the decision of the Constitutional Court “as the Brussels Court of Appeal had explicitly demanded,” Budget Minister Sven Gatz said.
Pascal Smet, the city’s secretary for urbanism, said the policy was “too crazy to be real.”
Smet, minister for transport in the previous Brussels government, tried to reform the taxi regulation in 2018 but ran into opposition from Vervoort and his party. His plans had come under fire from the taxi sector, with trade unionists accusing him of adapting the laws to “suit Uber’s wishes.”
Uber is no stranger to fights over what is sees as outdated legislation governing the vehicle hire market across Europe.
For example, in Germany the company is tussling with lawmakers over a return-to-base requirement for drivers, while in Spain it has faced off against a policy where drivers have to hold on for 15 minutes after accepting a fare before pick-up.
“Mobility rules must be fit for the digital age,” said Claudia Breure, the chair of the European Association of On-Demand Mobility which counts Uber in its membership. The Brussels Government ruling is just one of many examples across Europe of regulations that defy smart and sustainable mobility objectives.”
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