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

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) / Cristina Tomàs White

Cristina Tomàs White | Barcelona

June 6, 2021 12:34 PM

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.