Europe’s highest court has begun hearing arguments in a case which will ultimately decide the fate of Uber — and other ‘sharing economy’ services like Airbnb — across the entire continent.The court case is the result of a 2014 complaint in Spain brought by the Spanish taxi association, and the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg will now decide if Uber is a transportation service or a digital platform.
Uber claims it is simply an intermediary between the customer and driver and, as such, should not be regulated like a traditional taxi company. Opponents say that Uber is overseeing a huge fleet of drivers and cars and must therefore be subject to the same strict regulations as everyone else.On Tuesday, Uber told the 15-judge panel that it was helping to bolster Europe’s digital economy. “Uber’s services can’t be reduced to merely a transport service,” The New York Times reported a member of Uber’s legal team telling the court. “The reduction of unnecessary barriers to information society services is critical in the development of the digital single market.”While the court is not expected to publish a ruling until March 2017, Europe remains divided over the issue. Supporting Uber’s claim are the European Commission (the executive arm of the EU), along with countries like the Netherlands, Finland, Poland and Greece. France, Spain and Ireland have all filed documents with the court in support of the Barcelona taxi driver association, saying that Uber should be regulated like any other transport service.If Uber is victorious, it will mean it can quickly and easily set up its business across the entire 28-member bloc. A positive ruling for Uber will benefit other sharing economy services like Airbnb, Deliveroo and Hassle in a similar manner.If Uber loses however, the company faces the prospect of strict regulations being enforced by each country’s transport regulators, meaning that operating in Europe could become unsustainable for Uber.Since it began in 2009, Uber has launched in 300 cities across six continents and is valued at almost $70 billion. However such expansion has not been straightforward.Since moving into Europe five years ago, it has faced numerous issues with local regulators. Countries including Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain have all at one time or other banned or curtailed the use of Uber. Its headquarters in Amsterdam have been raided on numerous occasions. Last month, a tribunal in the U.K. ruled that Uber drivers are entitled to the minimum wage.At the same time as Uber’s European fate is being decided in Luxembourg, hundreds of its drivers in cities across the U.S., including San Francisco, Miami and Boston have joined the union-backed “Fight for $15” strike. The campaign has successfully convinced several cities and states to raise the wages above the U.S. minimum of $7.25.