Former Brussels Mobility Minister Pascal Smet on Thursday presented a lengthy denial of any form of compromission with the multinational Uber during his term of office and while drafting his proposed reform of the taxi ordinance.
Smet was speaking during a session of the Brussels Parliament’s special commission on Uber Files. His name had been mentioned in connection with Uber Files, an investigation conducted by an international consortium of journalists, including Belgian ones from Knack, De Tijd and Le Soir.
This investigation revealed the methods - not all of them legal - used by the multinational in several countries to establish itself on the market. It also brought to light the existence of contacts between Uber and the Brussels government during the preparation of the reform of the taxi ordinance.
Commission looking into the defensibility of Uber's lobbying
The contacts between Pascal Smet, then Minister of Mobility, and Uber lobbyist Mark MacGann, were of particular interest. The commission is trying to find out whether the lobbying was within the bounds of what was defensible.
“The Uber files have shown that Uber also engaged in certain practices which, I believe, clearly breached the law in terms of preventing acts of investigation and attempts to undermine the control of my administration,” Smets said.
“I hope the judiciary will judge this. As far as the lobbying contacts with me and my office are concerned, I think you should conclude with me that nothing incriminating can be held against me,” he added as he concluded his opening statement of over an hour and a half.
Former minister provides detailed evidence
The former minister did not come empty-handed. He gave MPs a bundle of nearly 430 pages of documents to back up his attitude throughout the process of drawing up his taxi ordinance reform bill.
During his detailed speech, Mr Smet indicated that 254 meetings or contacts had taken place. Of these, 76 (about 30%) concerned the so-called LVC sector. In this category, fewer than half of these contacts (33 in all, or 13%) concerned representatives of Uber. The minister said he himself was present at four of these meetings. Participation in the others involved an advisor, in person and by phone.
In contrast, no fewer than 106 meetings took place with the taxi sector - 131 if the taxi advisory committee is added, or 52% of all meetings.
Pascal Smet recalled that, at the time, Uber was very positively received in all strata of society, not only at the political level. The multinational was part of the new collaborative economy, driven by technological innovation in Silicon Valley.
In Brussels, this reception largely echoed a general feeling of dissatisfaction among consumers, who complained about the poor service provided by taxis and growing insecurity.
The Dutch-speaking Socialist representative maintained that he had wanted to defend a two-pronged approach from the outset “namely that Uber, Heetch, CarASAP, Djump and other sharing platforms were welcome on the Brussels market as long as they complied with the existing regulations, on the one hand, and that, on the other hand, I was going to proceed with a reform of the sector, provided for in the government agreement, to create a specific regulatory framework for this new form of paid private transport.”
'... the confirmation that I was going in the right direction'
“In the end this alleged dual position - as if I had been much more accommodating behind the scenes - is also in total contradiction with my enforcement and control policy, which I pursued very strictly, resulting in thorough checks, seizures, a criminal complaint leading to a search of Uber’s premises, letters to members of the federal government responsible for social and tax fraud, to the federal police, contacts with companies that cooperated with Uber, such as Brussels Airlines, Apple or Google, and so on,” he added.
In Smet's words, for the new players he was not going far enough and for the traditional players he was the gravedigger of their sector. “For me, it was confirmation that I was going in the right direction,” he said.
'no question of pantouflage or revolving doors ...'
“As far as the alleged conflicts of interest are concerned, I am still waiting for an element, a moment, an incident or an event where problematic situations have arisen … My staff had no connection with this sector before or after and there can be no question of pantouflage or revolving doors. In terms of influence, there were never any gifts or other benefits. On the other hand, I did get hate mail, …death threats, on a daily basis: 'Let’s put a rock around Smet’s neck and throw him into the canal',” he continued.
Smet finally stressed that since the beginning of the legislature, well before the revelations of the Uber files, he kept an up-to-date transparency register on his contacts, as did his firm, without being obliged to do so by law. He said he was currently the only person in the Brussels government to do so.