Also in Belgium, Uber used dubious practices to gain a foothold, for example by exerting pressure on governments. This is evident from the revelations of the Uber Files by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), of which Belgian media such as Knack, De Tijd, and Le Soir are members. In France, it is the current president, Emmanuel Macron, who takes the flack.
The PS, supported by Ecolo, has meanwhile called for a committee of inquiry into Uber in the Brussels Parliament. According to the research, Brussels Mobility Minister Pascal Smet (Vooruit) was a pivotal figure for the American company in its fight to open up the Brussels taxi market (apparently, his name appears more than 1 000 times in the so-called Uber files).
But because the capital of Europe was of great importance to the taxi platform as a gateway to the entire European Union, Uber’s lobbying machine was also running at full speed in the EU buildings in 2014. Former European Commissioner Neelie Kroes also came into disrepute because she flouted ethical guidelines by lobbying for Uber.
Even before the 2014 elections, Pascal Smet, then still a Flemish minister, and his staff were in contact with Uber lobbyists, writes De Tijd. According to leaked emails, he promised not to oppose Uber if the company complied with some conditions. When Smet became Minister of Mobility, he sat on a crucial seat for Uber.
Moreover, Smet turned out to have been good friends with Uber’s main European lobbyist, Mark McGann, who was told he was an ally of Uber but had to make public statements to reassure the taxi industry.
For example, the minister sent inspectors to Uber and had Uber driver’s cars impounded but reassured the American multinational behind the scenes. Smet’s strategy was described by the lobbyist as ‘1/3 stick and 2/3 carrot’.
Pascal Smet says in De Tijd that he saw no harm in his personal relationship with Uber’s chief lobbyist when he launched the Brussels taxi plan in 2015 that would legalize Uber as the first in Europe.
“In terms of content, I have been very clear to him in every conversation: Uber only has a future in Brussels in a framework determined by the government, with respect for the status of the driver, transparency for the customer, and data transmission to the government,” Smet said.
But his ministerial cabinet even corrected Uber’s press release or informed them of the substantive changes in the taxi plan, while letting them know that he was not providing this information to the classic taxi companies, or even sent the draft ordinance of the Taxi Plan before it was made public. In total, between Uber and his cabinet, there were nine meetings between September 2014 and February 2015,
That his cabinet informed Uber about the taxi plan it was working on is not unusual for Pascal Smet. “There were also many meetings with the taxi sector outside the public forum. That was necessary because the debate was very polarized at the time. Moreover, we wanted to avoid strikes that would block Brussels. We wanted to avoid statements that would lead to further polarisation. Hence the discretion in the talks with all parties.”
According to De Tijd, the leaked WhatsApp messages also contained sexually-oriented messages between Uber’s main lobbyist and the then Minister of Mobility. For reasons of privacy, the media involved decided not to publish those reports. But they raise the question of how delicate it is to have such a relationship with the lobbyist of an important company that you must oversee as a minister, De Tijd writes.
Parliamentary investigation committee
The political parties PS, Ecolo, PVDA, and Vlaams Belang, meanwhile, are calling for an investigation committee to be set up in the Brussels parliament to get to the bottom of the affair.
“Private detectives’ investigations against Brussels ministers, repeated violations of sectoral laws, destruction of data, obstruction of justice, organization of false demonstrations, suspicions of tax evasion, front companies to circumvent Brussels legislation, etc. are all attacks on our rule of law and our democracy,” socialist group leader Ridouane Chahid said.
For his part, the PS group leader in the Chamber, Ahmed Laaouej, announced that he would call on the Minister of Justice, Vincent Van Quickenborne (Open Vld), to use his right to issue a positive injunction to the public prosecutor. The actions revealed by the international consortium of journalists merit a judicial inquiry.
The place of Uber or companies offering the same transport services in the Belgian capital, as in other major cities around the world, has given rise to bitter political debates and led to a reform of the ‘taxi plan’ approved by the regional parliament in June.
‘Not a responsible employer’
The Brussels Taxi Federation (BTF) already responded that it hopes that in that committee the light will be shed on a meeting that then-Minister of Mobility, Pascal Smet, had in 2015 with McGann, and another lobbyist, David Plouffe.
Smet said in the past that he wanted to hear from all parties. He also pointed out at the time that he was taking steps against UberPop, which did not comply with Brussels legislation. He also expressed doubts about the legality of its successor, UberX.
The socialist transport trade union STB, on the other hand, is not convinced that the taxi platform Uber has changed compared to the past, as it claims. According to BTB president Frank Moreels, Uber can prove that it is now a different company by giving its drivers’ employee status.
“Let’s face it. Drivers who work for Uber are pseudo-self-employed. They must buy or lease their own car, which must meet the conditions imposed by Uber. They must ensure themselves against illness, accidents, civil liability, etc. But they do get their assignments from Uber,” Moreels says.
The union, therefore, believes that Uber faces a crucial challenge: either the company continues its illegal and unethical practices, or they start behaving like a responsible employer.”
Neelie Kroes is also in troubles
Meanwhile, Neelie Kroes, former vice-president of the European Commission, has also been criticized for having lobbied secretly for Uber. The documents that the journalists were able to inspect in the context of the Uber files show that the Dutch Kroes secretly lobbied for the alternative taxi service in 2015 and 2016, even though the Commission had explicitly prohibited her from taking a position with the company.
Kroes allegedly approached ministers, top officials, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on behalf of Uber. An official from the Environment and Transport Inspectorate, who had burst into Uber’s offices at the time, was also approached. Through the former European Commissioner, the company wanted to influence taxi legislation and a criminal investigation into Uber, the journalists concluded from their research.
Kroes, who built her political career with the Dutch liberal party VVD, was Euro Commissioner until November 2014. A year later, she asked the Commission for permission to join Uber’s advisory committee, but the Commission pointed out the 18-month cooling-off period she had to observe. When that expired, Kroes joined the advisory committee in 2016.
The European Commission has meanwhile asked Neelie Kroes for an explanation of the new media revelations. For all intents and purposes: in December 2017, the European Court of Justice ruled that Uber is a transport company and has to apply to local legislation in the member states.
Also lobbying in London
In London, Uber has also allegedly lobbied ministers to influence transport policy in the British capital, according to a report by the Guardian and the BBC. Several documents show that lobbyists from the company met with the then Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister), George Osborne, and other ministers.
The “undisclosed” meeting took place after Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London promised to launch a study that could have limited Uber’s expansion in the capital. In July 2014, Uber lobbyists met with current and former government ministers at 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the British Prime Minister, then inhabited by David Cameron.
As a result, Boris Johnson eventually abandoned the study, leaving the way clear for the giant of Silicon Valley to increase its number of drivers in London, although the company also lost its London taxi license several times over the years.
‘Different company now’
In its response, Uber points out that much has already been said about “the mistakes before 2017” when the company was still led by the equally flamboyant and controversial Travis Kalanick. “We don’t look for excuses for past behavior that is clearly inconsistent with our current values, but Uber is a different company now.”
Uber today operates in 10 500 cities in 70 countries. Worldwide the company claims 118 million users per month. Despite an annual turnover of almost 30 billion euros (including home delivery service Uber Eats), the company has not yet been able to close a single year with a profit.