Brussels turns down Spain’s request to clarify rules for alternatives to taxis

Petition comes day after cab strike brought traffic chaos to Madrid and Barcelona

Taxi drivers protesting in Berlin.
Taxi drivers protesting in Berlin.Sean Gallup (Getty Images)

The European Commission says it will not intervene in the conflict between taxi drivers and online car-sharing applications such as Uber, as the Spanish government had requested.

“It is not something that is on our horizon nor are we considering it as part of our reaction to yesterday’s protests,” said the spokesman for the European Commissioner for Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes. In its judgment, in the current political climate, the EC should not be “taking on new powers.”

“When the pertinent directives were passed, it was left very clear that the member states wanted to retain these matters as part of their jurisdiction,” the EC spokesman pointed out. “The member states who requested it are legally competent to tackle it.”

The Spanish government had asked Brussels to clarify the status of the alternative passenger transport services a day after a massive strike was held by taxi drivers in Madrid, Barcelona and other European cities.

Public Works Minister Ana Pastor wants to see some common rules that EU members can fall back on to prevent new protests like the ones that brought traffic chaos to Spanish cities with claims that new services represent unfair competition.

Uber feels that taxis “have had no competition for decades” and feel threatened by companies that “add more options”

Berlin, London, Paris and Milan also joined in the outcry against new online applications such as Uber, which allows smartphone users to order a ride from a driver who lacks an official taxi license.

The US-based company has been the target of ire in Europe, where taxi licenses can cost up to €200,000.

But European Commission Vice-President Neelie Kroes supports the new transport services and has warned via a post on her blog that if Europe cracks down on this budding sector, “millions of jobs will go elsewhere and innovation will continue to be focused in the US.”

She also called on all the parties — taxi drivers, alternative transport services and authorities — to sit down to talk.

“The time has come to face the facts: innovations such as Uber are here to stay. We have to work with them, not against them.”

“Technology is changing many aspects of our lives, and we cannot address the challenge they pose by ignoring innovations, going on strike or trying to ban them,” she said in reference to services such as Uber, DJump, Taxipal, Taxify and Hailo.

The Spanish minister had been planning to request a meeting with Kroes and the transport commissioner, Siim Kallas, to “clear up this issue as much as possible, and ask for the Commission to intervene with the goal of treating these platforms in the most homogeneous way possible,” said sources at the ministry.

The government says that it does not negotiate with companies, but legislates with the common good in mind

For now, the Public Works Ministry is refusing to meet with the parties involved in the fight at the domestic level.

“We do not negotiate with companies. The government passes legislation with the general good in mind, not on the basis of facts on the ground. You cannot operate in a given manner and then ask for the laws to be changed. Additional legislation is not necessary, regardless of what Brussels may do to standardize [the way the new services get treated].”

The head of Uber in Europe, Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty, said that taxis “have had no competition for decades,” and that now they are feeling threatened by companies that “add more options” for clients.

“Spain does not need new transport rules,” added Vicent Rosso, director of BlaBlaCar for Spain and Portugal. Blablacar offers carpooling services in which passengers share the cost of the trip with the driver but are not charged for the ride per se.

The Public Works Ministry has stated that it sees a difference between for-profit professional car services such as Uber and carpooling by individuals who want to save on transport costs, an activity that is legal and requires no prior authorization.

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