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Why is it so hard to use ride-hailing apps in Barcelona?

Lack of EU-wide regulations leaves decisions up to member states, says University of Liège professor

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06 June 2021 12:34 PM

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Cristina Tomàs White | Barcelona

Tourists visiting Barcelona for the first time may be shocked to find that their trusted ride-hailing apps are more likely to be a nuisance than of assistance. 

But it’s not like Uber and Cabify haven’t tried. Indeed, and as has been the case for Cabify, the US company’s relationship with the Catalan capital has been, to put it lightly, a rocky one ever since they first set up shop in 2014 — a fateful decision prompting unrest within the more heavily regulated local taxi sector and a dispute that eventually gave rise to a European Court of Justice ruling forcing them to reconsider their EU business model. 

Back in Barcelona once again, will the third time be the charm for Uber now that it seeks to work with local cab drivers? Or will it continue to incur the wrath of a significant chunk of the city’s taxis? Will Cabify’s self-employed VTC drivers be able to operate successfully? And why has something so ubiquitous elsewhere failed to take hold here?

To better understand why this is the case, Catalan News spoke to Pieter Van Cleynenbreugel, an EU substantive law professor at the University of Liège in Belgium.

How are ride-hailing apps regulated in the EU?

There is no EU-wide regulation for ride hailing apps specifically. The European Union has been in the process of developing a regulatory framework for online platforms since 2016, it has adopted EU-wide rules in 2019, and there is a proposal in progress at the moment the digital services act. But they only target online platforms that function as intermediaries between providers of services and recipients of services; there has been an exception for transport services. 

In a certain way, Uber manages to fall between the cracks of existing EU rules, leaving it within the scope of national rules. And those national rules, they differ enormously within the different states and even between the different regions and cities within those states.

How has Barcelona’s Uber-taxi conflict had an impact on a European level?

As far as Barcelona is concerned, it is of course the most interesting case because it has been the city that has given rise to these cases at the court of justice level where indeed a city as Barcelona has tried to limit the use of Uber or even prohibit the use of Uber. The question was raised by Uber: can they simply do this because we are trying to bring in touch drivers and clients? And there the court said, no you can do this because transportation services are not regulated at the EU level.

  • "The question is, is Uber going to be willing to take on those responsibilities towards its drivers?"

    Pieter Van Cleynenbreugel · EU substantive law professor at the University of Liège in Belgium

In 2017 and in 2018 again, the Court of Justice of the EU ruled that when such an application is offering services in the field of transport, it is not covered by the general rules regulating online intermediation. If there are no EU rules, the different states and cities remain responsible and able to regulate transportation services. 

What does this mean in practice?

There is quite a patchwork of different approaches in different countries and different cities. I would distinguish two extremes that are, on the one hand, cities where Uber is perfectly legal because city rules or national rules allow for those services to be offered. A good example, for instance, is Croatia, a country and EU member state where Uber is perfectly legal. Other cities, especially cities with a well-developed and well-entrenched taxi sector, have adopted rules that are much more restrictive and Barcelona is indeed an example; another example is Brussels. 

Uber drivers in the UK are now recognized as workers. Could that eventually happen in the EU too?

As the ruling in the UK makes clear, those independent professionals are operating in some kind of relationship of subordination or dependence from Uber. Uber determines when and how many rides they can pick up, determines the rates that are being charged and also imposes certain quality requirements as to the vehicles and cars that need to be used.

The different EU member states remain free, to some extent, to determine what the status of Uber drivers is. If you look at how they are dependent on Uber for the provision of certain services, it is very likely that in EU member states as well, Uber drivers can be considered employees, which would mean that Uber would have concluded an implicit labor agreement with them and would have to offer certain guarantees. 

If that were the case for Uber, that is of course a big additional cost, but also comes with additional responsibilities. The question is, is Uber going to be willing to take on those responsibilities towards its drivers? That is an evolution that is difficult to predict.

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  • A protest by taxi drivers in Barcelona rejecting Uber's return in the city (by Jordi Bataller)

  • A protest by taxi drivers in Barcelona rejecting Uber's return in the city (by Jordi Bataller)

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