Hundreds of taxis from across Europe jammed central Brussels on Wednesday (16 September) in protest against the driver-hailing app Uber, closing tunnels and disrupting commuters’ journeys.
The international convoy with horns beeping crawled into the city’s busy European quarter in hopes of meeting Belgian and EU officials, stopping at major intersections and bringing traffic on main roads to a standstill.
Transport union FGTB-UBT said about 1,200 taxis, hailing from France, Britain, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal, took part in the protest. Police said there were around 400.
Air travellers were forced to end their journey escorted on foot by police after drivers blocked the motorway exit to the airport, a distance of around a kilometre (half a mile), the Belga news agency said.
“We come from Madrid, Barcelona, to defend a Europe free from Uber,” said Concha Guardado, a cab driver from Spain.
“Today it is the taxi drivers protesting, but soon it will be other professions,” a Brussels taxi driver told AFP.
Since its launch in Europe four years ago, the US start-up Uber has drawn the ire of traditional taxi drivers and faced court injunctions in several countries, including Spain, Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands.
Taxi drivers say Uber circumvents local regulations on safety, tax and licensing.
“They [Uber] pay no charges, they have no social security, they are not even insured for transporting people,” said Paris taxi driver Ben Deniro.
Cabbies drove with banners saying “This is not an illegal taxi” and “No to the ‘uberisation’ of our profession” on their vehicles.
Two weeks ago Uber launched its licensed service UberX in Brussels, although it said it did not plan on suspending its unlicensed service UberPOP as it has done in Paris.
Uber awaits a French court decision it hopes will strike down a law passed by the French government that sharply restricts its activities.
“Uber is about keeping cities moving – connecting people to safe, reliable and affordable transport at the tap of a button. These threats, by a small number of taxi drivers, only underline why people are increasingly choosing alternatives like Uber,” said a spokesman for the company.
A survey published on Tuesday, conducted by Belgian newspaper La Libre, pollster Dedicated and public broadcaster RTBF, showed that only 7% of Belgians were in favour of banning Uber.
Meanwhile, a Spanish court has asked the EU’s top court to decide whether Uber is a technology application or an old-fashioned transport company that would require far stricter regulation.
Uber, the world's most valuable venture-backed start-up, with a valuation of $40 billion, is facing increasing legal challenges across Europe, where local taxi drivers have taken to both the streets and courts to fight it.
It has been criticised worldwide over how it pays drivers, charges passengers and ensures their safety. Taxi companies argue it competes unfairly because it does not have to pay their steep license fees and bypasses local laws.
To date, Uber has been hit by court injunctions in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.
Uber has already filed two complaints against a French law it says favors regular taxi companies at its expense.
Regulation of taxi services is the competence of member states, the European Commission said, but it would assess the complaints in light of the principles of proportionality, non-discrimination and freedom of establishment.