Uber to shutter most of its service in Belgium tomorrow after court ruling

Uber will halt its ride-hailing service in most of Belgium tomorrow following a court ruling Wednesday that extends a 2015 order banning its p2p UberPop service to also cover professional drivers providing its ride-hailing service.

Uber told us that it is studying the detail of the ruling to decide whether to appeal the decision with the country’s Supreme Court.

The move also follows a temporary suspension of Uber’s service in Brussels in September — an action the tech giant called “exceptional and unprecedented”, saying it was only taking the step to protest the lack of reform of rules which prohibit drivers from using smartphones.

Following the ruling by the Brussels Appeal Court this week, private hire vehicle drivers have also been blocking a major tunnel in the Belgian capital.

In a statement on Friday’s looming shutdown, Uber’s country chief, Laurent Slits, once again attacked the Belgian government for not delivering a reform it’s been lobbying for, writing: “This decision was made based on outdated regulations written in a time before smartphones, which the government has promised and failed to reform for the last seven years.”

Per Bloomberg, which reported on Uber’s shutdown earlier, it will not apply to a small number of drivers who are licensed in a Flemish region of the country — and who will therefore still be allowed to use the app.

Uber confirmed the Appeal Court ruling only affects drivers with Brussels licences.

In the statement, Slits added that the tech giant is “deeply concerned” about the 2,000 holders of LVC licenses (aka rental car with driver licences) who he said will “lose their ability to generate earnings [via Uber’s platform] from Friday”.

That phrasing — “generate earnings” — refers to the fact Uber does not employ drivers directly in Belgium; instead it classifies them as independent contractors. So it cannot claim that 2,000 ‘jobs’ are about to be lost since it does not provide employment contracts to the LVC drivers in question in the first place.

“We urge the government to move quickly to reform the taxi and LVC sector once and for all so that drivers can continue working to provide for their families,” Slits added.

Back in March the local government in Brussels banned Uber drivers from picking up rides via smartphones and geolocation.

Since then Uber drivers in the city have been operating in a legal grey zone — where they risk sanctions by continuing to drive using its app. However the company suggests drivers have been given mixed messages, claiming authorities are sometimes telling drivers — in private — that they can continue driving.

A spokesman for Uber called the government’s March order “mistaken” — pointing out that it had promised a reform of the law before the summer. Per Reuters, a draft law to reform the rules was set out by the Belgian government in September. But, according to Uber, the sector as a whole has yet to see the text.

Uber suggested there is widespread backing in Belgium for reforming the 1995 rules — not just from LVC drivers who serve customers via its platform but also from traditional taxi firms.

However local taxi firms in Brussels have their own reform ideas — and have also said they are keen to poach Uber drivers to plug a shortage of taxi drivers.

A sector spokesman recently told TaxiPro there’s a shortfall of 600+ taxi drivers in the capital which could be filled by LVC holders that have been driving for Uber.

“The big advantage is that we offer a solution to these Uber drivers,” Sam Bouchal told the publication in September [translated to English via Google Translate], saying that the Uber drivers could be offered permanent contracts, and adding: “We’re getting them out of illegality.”

Bouchal also told TaxiPro that the taxi sector wants to avoid what he couched as “a social massacre.”

Concern over gig working conditions has been a fiery topic across Europe for years, leading to scores of legal challenges — and a 2017 ruling by Europe’s top court that Uber is a transport service and so cannot simply dodge local taxi regulations.

In the UK, Uber was also recently been forced to recognize drivers as workers after losing the last of a long line of employment challenges at the country’s Supreme Court.

However, in Belgium — a core centre of power for the European Commission — the ride-hailing giant is continuing to lobby for favorably changes to the law to grease the engines of its platform business.

Uber is also lobbying the Commission to address ride-hailing regulations across the bloc’s single market in an upcoming urban mobility framework — which the EU exec has said it wants to support the development of urban transport systems that are “safe, accessible, inclusive, affordable, smart, resilient and emission-free”. 

Uber’s hope here is that EU lawmakers will seek to apply rules that override city level regulations — setting a pan-EU enabling framework for ride-hailing services which would mean it could just ignore local authority demands.

However the Commission has also said it wants the urban mobility framework to tackle “transport pollution and congestion” — so it’s not clear how removing regulatory barriers to ride-hailing would be anything other than counterproductive on that front.

Cars remain the least efficient way to transport people around dense urban environments given how much space they require and how relatively few people can be moved around in the space occupied by a single car vs a train, bus, cycling, scooting, walking etc. The rise of micromobility has also fuelled the range of available car alternatives — so the arguments in favor of cars in cities are shrinking rapidly.

The coronavirus pandemic has also led to a number of European cities to dial up their focus on transforming street infrastructure to be more pedestrian and locally focused, also leveraging the rise of micromobility to enact policies that deliberately de-emphasize the car. Simply put, cleaner air and more vibrant local streets (and school bike trains) are hard to argue against.

While Brussels has not been at the forefront of those developments the city has been seeking to reduce the number of cars on its infamously congested, pollution-smogged roads in recent years. So Belgium’s government may well have reason to pause and consider the implications of any ride-hailing reforms.

In parallel, the European Commission has been working on another legislation initiative — which it wants to improve conditions for platform workers across the bloc, responding to high levels of concern over factors such as the lack of job security and precarious earnings.

On that front Uber has also been busy lobbying — and stands accused of pushing EU lawmakers to reduce standards for platform workers, with critics saying it’s seeking to replicate its success in overturning a California law that had sought to classify gig workers as employees.

So the street-level battle for Europe’s social contract is very real.

Update: The Brussels government has announced reaching an agreement on the reform of the taxi sector — which it said would focus on four main objectives: A common legal framework for the sector; improving quality of service for customers; regulating booking platforms; and protecting the local economy.

Uber welcomed the development, issuing a statement describing it as “an important first step for the 2,000 drivers who have been waiting for reform for seven years”; and adding that it hopes the government will nowmove quickly to consult LVC drivers and bring this proposal to parliament while also taking immediate action to safeguard drivers’ earnings opportunities, so they can continue to provide for their families”.

However in its statement the Brussels government rebuked Uber for creating a situation of legal risk for LVC drivers, with minister Rudi Vervoort calling out Uber for irresponsibly allowing the sector to develop “with the legal risk of seeing this device banned” and for “misleading” LVC drivers — pointing out that since the 2015 ruling which banned UberPop there has been an increase of almost 448% in the number of drivers in the LVC sector with a Brussels plate.

“I am deeply touched by the distress of LVC drivers. They are not responsible for this situation,” Vervoort added.