Uber fury as Brussels government smartphone ban threatens to shut down ride-hailing in the Belgian capital

Uber Brussels

Uber’s Belgian division and its drivers have reacted angrily to the Brussels government’s extraordinary decision to ban Uber drivers from using smartphones – effectively shutting Uber down in the Belgian capital.

Brussels Minister-President Rudi Vervoort announced on Monday that any of the 2,000 Uber drivers in Brussels who fulfil contracts by using smartphones and geolocation can be fined and even have their car confiscated. The move affects other ride-hailing companies, including French operator Heetch, which also offers a service in Brussels.

Vervoort told Belga News Agency that the decision, which references a 1995 law involving “radio communication devices,” was designed to stop Uber, which he considered “reprehensible” as it did not offer contracts to its drivers.

“It is the system itself that is reprehensible. The question is, what kind of future we want to give to passenger transport in Brussels? The competition introduced by Uber is not sustainable in the long term,” Vervoort said, urging people to use alternative taxi services.

But the move has sparked an angry reaction from Uber and its drivers, who are threatening to bring the city to a standstill if the ban is not revoked. Around 100 Uber drivers drove to Vervoort’s official residence to demand an explanation.

Fernando Redondo, president of the Association of Belgian Limousine Drivers (ABCL), called the move “scandalous”. He said Uber had been operating in Brussels for years. “Vervoort has tolerated the current working method for years until overnight we are no longer allowed to use our smartphone,” Redondo told local media. “He has clearly succumbed to the taxi sector lobby.”

Redondo said the measure was “bullying” during the coronavirus crisis, which has already hit the taxi sector hard. “When we hear that even one driver has been fined for using his smartphone, we will shut down all of Brussels,” he said. “We hope it doesn’t have to come to that, but we are prepared to do so.”

Opposition politicians have ridiculed Vervoort’s decision. CDH party deputy Christophe De Beukelaer told local media: “It’s like asking a cook to stop using pots and pans. It’s unbelievable. We are going to be the only city in Europe where you won’t be able to order a transport vehicle via your mobile phone.” Another opposition politician, Pascal Smet, called a ban on smartphones in 2021 “too crazy to be real”.

In a Taxi Plan drawn up by the Brussels government in 2018, platforms such as Uber are subject to the same rules as taxis and chauffeured limousines, but the regulations are currently under review in the Constitutional Court. 

Uber is pursuing options in the court. Laurent Slits, Head of Belgium at Uber, told The Brussels Times: “It is incomprehensible that the government is taking measures against 2,000 drivers on the basis of a regulation currently under review by the Constitutional Court.”

He added: “This is a matter of great concern to the drivers and their families, and we call on the Minister-President to respect the work of the Constitutional Court and await its decision.”