Is another German word for arrogance. And that's probably the perception of Uber's current market behavior in Germany. In fact not only in Germany but also everywhere else in Europe. Why?

Well, the problem seems to be less “Uber” and more American in fact. And that's sad because in fact most of these U.S. companies have brilliant and new ideas which they want to roll out in markets that are sometimes just not yet ready for them. But the way they do it hurts their own business interests. Though they wouldn't have to. It could all run very smoothly. But instead of working on their issues politically they act confrontationally. Some say Cowboy style. And sure as hell: It won't work in Europe.


We've seen it before with GE trying to get clearance on the Honeywell deal in Europe. Later with Microsoft walking over Brussels. Followed recently by Google. And now Amazon. It's in a way a collision between the American frontier idea of endless freedom in ones' pursuit of (business) happiness – and the EU's old world ideals: obedience to the law and the rule of the same.

Yes, Americans have that, too. Rules and courts. And sometimes we in Europe wonder whether U.S. companies indeed do behave the same way on their home turf as they do overseas. Or whether all U.S. CEOs would then be in jail by now.

But it can't seriously be a matter of thinking that they will get away with it over here, can it? Microsoft tried it at its best. Being charged billions in fines in the end. And finally gave in and paid after the EU threatened to shut them down if they didn't.

So what is it that makes Uber ignore court rulings which say “Stop your cars!” by answering “Screw you!”? Trying to convince decision makers and bringing about a legislative or regulatory change that enables them to do what they do - not just legally but well perceived by the officials – would surely be wiser.

Uber’s mission to change the face of city travel has undoubtedly made headlines. The eponymous app that offers an alternative to traditional taxi services is used by millions worldwide, and for good reason: Bringing the driver within the reach of a button from the would-be passenger increases efficiency and potentially lowers tariffs, all while eliminating the middle-man and doing away with cash payments. Its ratings system is also said to provide for a better consumer experience, and it generally sounds like the new best thing in transportation.

But while this could be a consumer success story, much of the public attention received by Uber these days focuses on the company’s legal problems which they announce to “defend vigorously” (a wording the old world hardly uses anyway).

Remember that Microsoft gave the world the personal computer, Amazon made millions read, and Google anyway was perceived as the axis of good? The change in public perception, however, came – at least in Europe – when they started to behave “evil” in the eyes of the consumers. Not necessarily towards the consumers. But somehow “in the market”. Consumer opinion turned against them for this simple reason. And now asks for alternatives in the market as a result.

Progress means change and, unsurprisingly, lawsuits are piling up in many of the cities where Uber is present, as (authorized) taxi companies complain of unlawful competition. Legally speaking, they might even be correct. But the landscape created by European laws leads to taxi “guilds” with strict entry barriers, allegedly having in mind the otherwise noble goal of consumer protection. Tech-savvy judges may appreciate the idea behind Uber, or may have even travelled on the backseat of Uber Black rides, but in the end they must apply existing laws – which basically do not condone the company’s business model. So what do you do when the rules completely stifle technological progress? You change the rules.

Throughout 2014 and as recently as last month, members of the European Parliament have been expressing their will to support improvements in the mobility services sector, and their eagerness to learn more about ride-sharing apps in particular. The outgoing European Commissioner for Mobility and Transport, Siim Kallas, has also reaffirmed his interest for innovative technologies in passenger transport, whilst underlining the EU’s lack (and need) of dedicated legislation. His replacement has yet to be named, but the staffers of the Directorate General are sure to keep a watchful eye on this topic. “Steely Neelie”, the former European Commissioner for Europe's Digital Agenda, has even publicly criticized the fact that Uber's business model is being hampered. For their part, member states’ political bodies will surely try to keep up with the times and acknowledge the benefits brought by modern technology. Both in Brussels and other European capitals, work is also needed to make sure any outcome does not ignore the worries of traditional taxi companies and their employees.

The EU thus offers enormous potential for Uber regarding legislative changes that would address most concerns of the stakeholders and provide the best outcome for the end-user.

Instead, there are increasing signs of a deadlock. Left and right, Uber seems determined to defend itself in court based on the existing rules, and the direct result is an ever-expanding list of lost cases which only benefit their lawyers. The company’s recent habit of ignoring court decisions cannot pay off in the end, neither in the US nor in the EU. It will only serve to change its reputation into that of a rebel tech group with authority problems, placing it in the wrong crowd and creating a stigma that would be difficult to shake off.

A change of mentality is needed. Instead of trying to treat the symptoms, Uber should seriously address the core of the issue: transport legislation that was designed before the advent of the smartphone era.

In this regard, mild successes have been achieved in the US, but the new technology continues to face stiff local opposition in Europe. More impetus is required before the situation reaches a tipping point. Uber is certainly the trailblazer, but its business model is being tweaked by an increasing number of rivals that will eventually take the torch and push forward a different view of how things should develop. These include both start-ups and established automotive companies the size of Daimler, the latter proposing alternative concepts more in line with existing laws – and being a power player in Germany.

Whilst courts have their hands tied, European politicians are willing to lend an ear to the many possibilities opened up by ride-sharing apps. It is up to the interested companies to shape this debate. In Europe and elsewhere, Uber should not remain indifferent to its influence and responsibility in defining the rules of the business sector it has largely paved the way for. Rather, it would do well to assume the driver’s seat.

Geiger is managing partner of Alber & Geiger, a European-based government relations law and lobbying firm.