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With new court loss in Britain, Europe becomes more of a minefield for Uber

Back in 2017, The Post’s Karla Adam took a ride around London with an Uber driver and a taxi driver to get their thoughts on the Uber vs. taxi debate. (Video: Karla Adam, Jack Hextall/The Washington Post)

U.S. transportation company Uber lost another European court battle on Friday over employment rights for its British drivers. A London court decided against the company’s appeal, which sought to overturn a prior ruling that classified its drivers as workers — rather than self-employees — and entitled to paid breaks, a minimum wage and holiday pay.

Uber still refuses to consider its employees as workers (with benefits), however, and announced on Friday that it would appeal the latest court decision, as well. In a separate case, the company’s operating license for London was revoked several weeks ago for safety reasons, although Uber has also appealed that decision and continues to operate in the British capital.

What’s perhaps most surprising about Friday’s ruling is not the prospect of Uber running into problems with its British business but rather that it took so long. At this point, there are very few nations in western Europe that aren’t actively considering, if not already implementing, at least partial bans on the transportation company’s most controversial products.

Its popular UberPop option — which allows unlicensed drivers to pick up passengers — is currently available only in a handful of countries, after bans were implemented on it across the continent. In cities like Berlin or Dublin, Uber is only allowed to act as an intermediary between customers and professional taxi drivers. Passengers may order a taxi through the Uber app, but they still have to pay standard prices implemented by local transportation associations.

In many countries, even citizens or officials themselves are confused about the current limitations in place, given the back and forth between court rulings and Uber’s appeals. Italy, for example, first banned the service but then partially reintroduced it this year. The Croatian government similarly wanted to ban the service this summer but was prohibited from doing so by its own courts.

Elsewhere, judges have been less lenient. Uber was banned three years ago in Germany and partially in France, at a time when tensions between traditional taxi drivers and their new Silicon Valley competitors escalated into open street fights in Europe. French authorities launched a large-scale raid on Uber’s Paris offices in 2015 — likely in an attempt to send a clear message both to the U.S.-based company and to protesters who were rioting against the firm and setting vehicles on fire.

Since then, the legal actions and prohibitions have been a bit more discreet, if still quite rigorous. Denmark recently threw the company out of the country and Polish drivers risk hefty fines if they ignore a ban there.

Up until recently, the exception was Britain. Uber has struggled to grow elsewhere in Europe the way it has in London. While over 800,000 people have so far signed a petition to keep Uber in Britain’s capital, interest in the app has been more limited across the English Channel. In a 2014 survey, only 14 percent of Germans said they would seriously consider using the firm’s app, especially after it was criticized for partially allowing unlicensed drivers to operate.

Apart from safety concerns over what critics have called “hobby drivers,” Europe’s strong labor unions have organized protests in almost all places where Uber has tried to expand to or still operates. Nearly every third worker in Italy, Britain or Germany is unionized, compared to only about 11 percent in the United States.

Similar concerns over the company were raised by London’s traditional “cabbie” drivers, but so far the city has remained Uber’s de facto capital in Europe, with more customers relying on the app there than anywhere else on the continent. But with Friday’s ruling, London could become a bit more European again.

Read more: 

In London, black cabs win a battle against Uber. But is the war over?