Uber wants to launch in Belgium this year; local taxi drivers already up in arms about the prospect

On-demand car service company Uber is in the news again for very sad reasons. As Rude Baguette reported earlier this morning, taxi drivers in Paris are apparently attacking Uber cars, drivers and passengers; you can follow the discussion about that via Techmeme.

In related news, Belgian newspaper De Tijd this morning reported (paywall) that Uber wants to bring its taxi alternative to Belgium at some point this year. That remains to be seen, however.

Uber spokeswoman Susanne Stulemeijer told De Tijd reporter Peter De Groote that Uber wants to launch in Belgium in the course of 2014 – likely first in Brussels and later in Antwerp, according to the article.

Belgian law says no

In a conversation with tech.eu, Stulemeijer confirms Uber’s desire to launch its service in Belgium, but says availability will depend largely on local governments’ willingness to allow it in the first place.

As it stands now, it would be against Belgian law (see update below) for a company like Uber to operate the way it normally does. Stulemeijer says Uber has been wanting to launch in Belgium for some time now, but that it has met fierce resistance from the taxi industry, which has a firm grip on the situation here.

Update: Stulemeijer says Uber isn’t straight-up illegal in Belgium, but existing regulations would prevent the company from building a viable business there.

More specifically, the minimum time for a hired driver to place a vehicle into service is 3 hours, and the minimum far for those hours is 90 euros.

Either way, Uber wanting to launch in Belgium is hardly a major development for the company (although still very welcome news for me, as I currently live in Brussels); the service is already available in a number of European cities, including Paris, Berlin, London, Dublin, Rome and Stockholm, and the company is constantly expanding.

Taxi drivers say no, too

Here’s the kicker: De Tijd quotes taxi industry rep Constantin Tsatsakis, who posited that the Belgian government will likely never approve of Uber simply because the taxi drivers wouldn’t be in favour.

Tsatsakis, who is the president of a trade organization that represents Brussels taxi drivers, said that he not only was he against Uber making its debut in Belgium, but that he was also confident that the Belgian government will follow his organization’s recommendations in the matter because “that’s how things work”. Let’s pray that this is not simply “how things work” in this small pretty nation.

Alas, I reached out to Tsatsakis earlier this afternoon, and he confirmed the above in a phone conversation, repeatedly saying that Uber will never be able to successfully establish a business in Belgium. Tsatsakis claimed he hadn’t heard about the shenanigans going on in Paris today.

Power to the lobby

The fact that taxi drivers aren’t exactly thrilled with Uber launching anywhere, as it has the potential to disrupt their business tremendously, isn’t much of a surprise. What’s worrying in this case, however, is the apparent overly confidence of a taxi industry representative with regards to how the Belgian government will respond to Uber landing in these parts.

Stulemeijer says Uber cares about the consumer first and foremost, and lamented the fact that the taxi industry has such as powerful lobby in this country and others, but that Belgium continues to be high up the company’s wish list of places to operate in.

At the end of the day, Uber will have to wait for the Belgian government to amend the law in a way that will allow it to operate its service viably in Belgium in the first place. There’s no telling if, and when, that will happen, but you can rest assured that Belgian taxi drivers aren’t going to keep quiet while Uber tries to get the relevant legislation changed in their favour.

Personally, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Uber (and other companies offering similar services) to be able to launch in Belgium sooner than later. If you’ve ever had to take a taxi in this country – and particularly in the bigger cities – you will understand why.

Featured image credit: Phil Whitehouse / Flickr

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