Uber Chief: ‘Uber and Europe is definitely a conversation worth having’

Mark MacGann [Uber]

Uber is facing great resistance in Europe because it is challenging an old, uncompetitive industry, says the company’s Mark MacGann.

Mark MacGann is Head of Public Policy at Uber. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Ecaterina Casinge.

Uber has encountered staunch opposition in Europe. A few EU countries even asked their courts to ban the service. What is the current legal situation for Uber?

Uber is currently operating in 19 out of 28 EU countries, and by the summer we will be present in 24-25 member states.

There are ongoing lawsuits in France, Germany, Belgium, and Spain. We also filed a complaint with the European Commission against these countries, apart from Belgium.

In France, we are complaining about a law that was brought into existence last October to block us from accessing the market. In Germany, we raised objections over a recent interpretation of a law adopted 50 years ago, which says that Uber should be under a nationwide ban.

In Spain, we are complaining about a court’s decision taken in December 2014, which declared the service illegal and asked telecom operators to block the access to the Uber app, not only in Spain but also outside its territory. So, if a Spaniard travels to London, the Uber app will still be blocked on his or her mobile.

But we are using the courts to appeal in these countries.

We believe France, Germany, and Spain are in violation of article 49 (freedom of establishment) and 56 (freedom to provide services) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU. It also breaches e-commerce directive and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

What are you expecting from the Commission?

We would like the Commission to identify, following assessment, if it considers Uber transportation or a hi-tech service.

Uber considers itself a technology company, a digital platform, and not a transport operator. However, even if after assessment the Commission were to consider Uber a transport service, it would be wrong to say that this is a purely national competence. The fundamental principles of the EU Treaty apply, including fairness, proportionality and non-discrimination in regulatory treatment. If it goes the other way, the Commission will have to put in place a horizontal framework for new services based on technology, like Uber.

But lawmakers need to ensure that such services are regulated in a fair way, are not discriminated against or are being blocked market access in Europe. All companies should respect the rules, but the EC has to define if old rules are fit for purpose, given the economic and mobility potential of new tech.

How would you define Uber?

Uber is a technology platform that mediates between supply and demand using smartphones. Primarily, right now, the main service is urban passengers transport, helping people get a ride around cities.

But Uber and the EU is definitely a conversation worth having. An ideal scenario would be to get a regulatory solution in those countries where there is a legal vacuum.

You are one of the biggest innovators in the world. Why is there so much opposition to Uber in Europe?

There is opposition because we are coming and shaking up an old, deeply entrenched industry. Some countries are protecting the taxi industry to the detriment of consumers. If politicians would focus on what’s good for consumers, rather than what’s good for the taxi industry or Uber, then we would be in a different place.

One of the first jurisdictions in the EU to propose legislation to regulate Uber is Brussels. It has realised the need to reform the taxi sector and fill out a legislative gap to cover new solutions on the market.

Mobility is a real challenge for Brussels, as it’s the most congested city in Europe. After London, Antwerp is the third most congested city. According to statistics, the EU loses 1% of GDP to congestion, Belgium loses 2%. So, there is political will to reform. Not to be pro-Uber or pro-taxi, but pro-mobility.

Our business plan is not to compete with taxis, but with the concept of owning a car.

Uber safety and employment conditions are concerns often brought up by consumers. How do you address them?

It is important to distinguish between the two services we offer at the moment: The high-end Uber service (uberBLACK), where all drivers are employed with full-time jobs and subscribed to their insurance coverage, pension package etc. The other service we offer, called uuberPOP, is not supposed to offer a full-time job, a UberPop driver is supposed to work only a couple of hours a week to supplement their existing income.

The big opportunity here is, if taxi laws are deregulated enough to allow competition, you can actually generate full-time jobs so that interested drivers could be self-employed on a full time basis. We have created 25,000 such jobs in London alone, 10,000 in Paris.

I spoke to different politicians across Europe, they all say the same: We love you but fear that you are destroying Europe’s social model. Challenging the social context of Europe is not a good enough reason to ban a new service. There needs to be proper political debate on how to combine the benefits of new services to consumers with the need to protect workers.

Regarding safety, every Uber driver goes through a strict background criminal check. We also ensure that every Uber driver has full commercial insurance [in order to cover the passengers in case there is an accident]. And if that insurance is not enough, we provide a corporate insurance in all markets, which offers additional support.

We are constantly trying to upgrade our safety levels. We don’t believe we have come to a world where you can fully guarantee that there is not going to be a bad person. But the chances of a driver to get away with a wrongdoing are reduced because of Uber’s tracking technology.

We also provide our drivers with a yearly summary with revenues they should declare with their tax authorities but they bear the responsibility to send the data to local taxation authorities.

We are open to cooperate with taxation authorities where we could actually provide the data directly in order to avoid fiscal fraud, but we need a clear framework in place for that.

What’s next for Uber?

When you have this urban mesh of people connected to each other through technology, the possibilities are beyond just moving people around.

We plan to introduce more apps, like uberEats that would get you a very good meal in minutes (currently operating in Barcelona). We are working with a number of specific high-quality food restaurants so you could get a very good lunch for not so much money. Another innovation will be UberCargo, providing freight services.

We, in Europe, have invested so much of our taxpayers’ money into mobile phones, broadband, GPS, Galileo satellites in space. All this gives us better technology and it’s really all about innovation. Uber, as an innovative company, contributes to creating jobs in every market we are present.

There isn’t an answer to everything as this is so new.

We need to take advantage of the EU’s single market to create efficiency of scale and do more stuff. This is using cars that we’ve already created, optimising their use, and helping people get around cities.

It’s a slow process but it’s encouraging to see that the Commission is open and willing to look into this issue.

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