Thus Spake Berlaymunstra.

OK, not quite.
Uber the top: Neelie Kroes,
EU commissioner for Taxi Servi... 

oh, hold on...

But could we pause a moment, Eurovillageois, and take a time-out from the breathless vilification of a Brussels court decision to prohibit a private-car company from offering a service to rival the city's authorised taxis.

Uber is a fantastic service. BM and friends and colleagues attest to its magnificence having used it in other cities.

But it's not as if the judgment from the Brussels court would come as a surprise to the company, which went into the Brussels market knowing full well that the prevailing system would not simply roll out the red carpet for a private rival to the authorised and regulated handful of incumbent firms and their many drivers.

And EU 'Digital Agenda' commissioner Neelie Kroes's strongly-worded blurt yesterday on the ruling, as well as drawing headlines (not least a front page ... that's FRONT PAGE ... Financial Times piece), has raised eyebrows.

The strength of her rhetoric on the topic - "crazy... show your anger ..." - complete with bold type and exclamation marks - is about the strongest this administration has shown over anything during its mandate, that has seen national economies and behemoth banks crumble, the rise of the far right, galloping eurosceptic lies gather momentum, and Putin park his tanks on our eastern doorstep, among many other big issues considerably more worthy of such shoutiness.

It is also curious that an EU commissioner should jump to the defence in such a way of a single company, and by name.

Despite her protestations to the contrary, this Brussels decision is not "anti-tech." Such a comment is an attempt by Kroes to have the issue fall within her portfolio of competences. But the fact Uber offers its service over an app is by-the-by. The service itself is a transport service.

And the Brussels system for allocating operating licences is not, as Kroes notes, a "cartel." The former EU commissioner for competition policy should know better than to bandy around such an accusation.

Brussels is within its rights to decide how it licences its taxis, within what's legal, and there's no suggestion from Kroes - or anyone else yet - that the regime is illegal.

For Kroes to pass her own judgement that "the current system isn't working" simply isn't correct either. Nor is it her place to pass that judgement. 

And to cite an investigation into cases of rape by bogus taxi drivers is a cheap shot. She also, in her hyperbole, gets it wrong, mischaracterising the offences. These were awful crimes, that should not be used to score political points in this way, just to promote some tenuously-linked tech-innovation policy.

Make no mistake, Brussels citizens would benefit from a service such as Uber. Because it's a good service. But the city of Brussels has to strike a balance and consider the jobs of the quasi-public sector, regulated taxi drivers that are currently licensed to operate.

Brussels also has to take care not to risk bringing the national and European capital to its knees by attracting the ire of said taxi drivers, who can block all traffic at the drop of a hat, and have done so in the past when they felt their jobs and income were under threat.

The regime may have its flaws. Everyone has a tale of a driver not turning up, or overcharging, or being rude. Some recount worse. But the system broadly works and is priced fairly reasonably.

Kroes, as an occasional Brusseleir, may be with her rights - alongside many others in the town - to bemoan the faults of the existing Brussels taxi regime, and to regret that a shiny new app-based private service can't saunter in and offer customers what they'd prefer.

But her intervention was uber-the-top, and well uber-and-beyond the scope of her responsibilities .

In the meantime, *hat-tip* to Uber themselves for the PR coup. 

And a full *hat-doff* to the many, many Brussels taxi drivers BM has encountered over the decades, who work long and hard hours ferrying around spoilt eurobrats, and don't enjoy access to an institutional press apparatus and 100 000 twitter followers to defend their business.

And don't worry, Neelie, this bite won't scar. These teeth are papier-mâché.




  1. Ryan Heath // 2:30 PM  

    I'm not sure that's being completely fair. Why shouldn't Neelie Kroes or you or I have an opinion on this - as residents of Brussels, let alone Commissioner?
    And why shouldn't a Commissioner give her raw honest opinion about a situation like this?
    Isn't that what people want more of, compared to boring bureaucratic drivel from the Commission, delivered days after it would have been interesting to hear?
    This is also a symbol of deeper questions that arise in considering Belgium's future. Is it a country with an open mindset to new ideas and business models and so on, or is it a country that has orthdox conservative responses any time a vested interest is challenged?
    The court's decision can hardly be called proportionate either: €10,000 fines per fare/passenger. That is not keeping disobedience of this ruling in perspective.
    And I am not sure why it's a cheap shot to reference the gang-rapes. If Police are expected to enforce this new ruling, it would take valuable time away from solving real problems ... like gang-rapes. No, it's not always a zero-sum game, but in the grand scheme of public resource allocation - how is hounding Uber out of business the right allocation?
    And whether or not this ruling is a surprise is irrelevant. Fairness and justice isn't about whether one is surprised, it's about what is right.
    It's also not only about Brussels; it's about any other city that might want to slam the door in the face of innovation.
    So, as a quick responses to a decision that outraged many ordinary Belgians and residents of Brussels, Neelie did well.
    I would say that, I'm her spokesperson, but I think it's true and I think most people agree with her.

  2. Marc Portier // 4:04 PM  

    Well written, but I think I read one solid argument: there are far more important issues than this one out there. Still there is a fundamental side to it, touching on the more "heavy" subjects you rightfully mention.

    IMHO, all other points made in this articvle stay inside the demonstrated circular thinking that self-enforces new rules by the mear fact that they are needed to justify the old rules.

    IMHO the central argument coming from @BGrouwels (or the Brussels court, whatever) is that any new player has to follow the rules set out earlier... That is ignoring the fact that any game-changer should at least make you think if those were such a good idea in the first place?

    Kurt Gödel explained us why all formal systems will fail at some point, legal systems doubly so if you ask me :)

    So why not break this rule-loop and learn ourselves to find more "protection" and "assurance" (without the opposition to change) in a world with less (but better) rules?

    And putting down thát central discussion as being only propaganda for total libertarianism ("the wild west") is less then what we deserve.

  3. Berlaymonster // 4:10 PM  


    And I'm not sure NK was being completely fair, hence the piece above. And thanks to strong quotes and good PR (*hat-tip*) she's enjoyed fair winds in the press.

    We can all have an opinion about it. As can NK, as I point out. And as have I. Although - as I'm sure the pending missive from J. Laitenberger winging its way to NK as we write will point out - commissioners are expected to speak for their respective portfolios and stay on their own pistes. As I'm also sure NK herself will have asserted from time to time with certain colleagues...

    Would love to hear more of this kind of rhetoric, on the big issues that matter in the areas the commissioners actually are responsible for.

    That there have been deeply awful crimes committed by people passing themselves off as legitimate taxi drivers, does not call into question the network of legitimate taxi drivers. Also, as NK will remember from her time as competition commissioner, enforcement comes in part through the dissuasive effect of the threat of a penalty. There is no suggestion that the police would be expected to inspect every last taxi and chauffeur-driven private car.

    This is not about slamming the door on innovation. It's about the ability of any authority to choose how to manage a legacy and politically sensitive post-monopoly regime in such a way as to not rock the boat or put people out of business with a rude and sudden switch to an open-market. This should ring pretty loud bells for the commissioner in charge of EU telecoms...

    *Hat-tip* to you, and and NK, too.


  4. Jan Fabry // 8:17 PM  

    @Marc: Indeed, the best outcome of this situation would be a discussion about the pros and cons of regulating taxi services. Because it's not just about protecting the incumbents, regulations can have upsides for consumers as well. Otherwise so many other cities wouldn't have regulations as well. But so far, nobody has stepped up to start a fair discussion: the only thing we heard was "taxis are lame, Grouwels is lame, Uber is cool, so don't dare to ask questions!"

    And we should not look down at the courts for this. Their job is to decide on the basis of the existing rules. And I'm not sure, but I doubt these rules were made just by Brigitte Grouwels. At least they were created with the agreement of the full council of ministers, or even voted on by the Brussels parliament. So just blaming her and not any other politician seems very unfair to me.

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