Uber Commission: Smet sees no harm in lobbying contacts

The Brussels Parliament’s special Uber Commission concluded hearings on Thursday regarding lobbying contacts between service and ride-hailing company Uber and the Brussels government during the preparation of the reform of the taxi ordinance.

The contacts between then-Mobility Minister Pascal Smet (One.Brussels-Vooruit) and Uber lobbyist Mark McGann stood out. Smet denies the allegations. “No incriminating element can be attributed to me,” he said.

File with over 400 documents

The Uber files, an investigation by an international journalists’ consortium, were published in July last year. It revealed that multinational Uber used questionable methods to manipulate politics in several countries to gain access to their taxi market.

There were similarly close contacts between Uber and the Brussels government, particularly with the then Brussels Mobility Minister Pascal Smet, when preparing the reform of the taxi ordinance. This year, the abuses led to a “special Uber Commission” in the Brussels parliament.

Smet handed the committee members a file containing 430 pages of documents during the hearing. These showed that during the previous legislature, he had 254 contacts with the paid passenger transport sector, 76 with the VVC sector (rental vehicles with driver), of which 33 were with Uber (four of them by the minister himself), 131 with the traditional taxi sector, and 47 with other actors.

No conflict of interest

According to Smet, the overview should show that contacts with stakeholders were very balanced and that his plans – to create a new framework on the one hand, but on the other to prosecute Uber if it did not conform to the rules then in force – were criticized from both sides. For the new players, it did not go far enough; for the traditional players, Smet was the gravedigger of the sector.

Smet stressed in this regard that there was never any perceived conflict of interest or problematic situation and that he would never have received gifts or other benefits. However, he did face hate messages, intimidation, insults, and death threats, mainly from the rigid taxi industry and daily.

Sneer to journalists

Pascal Smet, now Brussels Secretary of State for Urbanism and Heritage, European and International Relations, and Foreign Trade, among others, also formally denied that there was a “gentleman’s agreement” whereby he pretended for the screen that Uber disliked him but did business with them behind the scenes.

He also pointed out that the taxi ordinance approved by the Brussels Parliament last year is some 95% the same as his text, already ready in February 2018. At the end of his plea, he gave the Uber files journalist a firm sneer because they only sent an email with six questions to his cabinet. Questions to provide additional info were refused. “An attack on my political integrity,” Smet concluded.

No lobbying register

For his part, Brussels Minister-President Rudi Vervoort, who oversees the taxi dossier this legislature, said in the Uber Commission that even though there was no consensus agreement on Mobility Minister Pascal Smet’s taxi plan, the government decided to validate it anyway at first reading to give the sector a chance to consult.

As the differences of opinion proved too great and no agreement was possible within the government, the new taxi plan was postponed to the next legislature. But it was not until November 2021 that the pressure on the file was increased by a ruling from the Brussels Court of Appeal.

As a result, Uber closed its UberX platform to Brussels drivers. Thereupon, the emergency ordinance was worked out in anticipation of the new taxi plan in force since October last year.

As for lobbying, his cabinet’s basic rule was that anyone who asked could be received. In April 2021, he received Laurent Slits, the CEO of Uber Belgium, at his request. A lobbying register does not exist in his cabinet.

The Uber committee chaired by Cieltje Van Achter (N-VA) has time until 19 May to reach a conclusion and make recommendations.



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