Taxi app Uber, which continues to battle regulatory clamp downs and legal confrontations in Europe, has appointed a former VP of the European Union’s executive arm, the European Commission, to its public policy advisory board as it looks to grease the gearbox of its regional fortunes.
The ex-VP in question, former digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes — who stepped down from her role in the European Union’s executive body in November 2014, after serving a five-year term in digital policy (and some 10 years in all as a European Commissioner) — was a vocal supporter of Uber during her time in post.
Prior to leaving office in 2014, for example, Kroes loudly condemned a ban of Uber in Belgium, publicly proclaiming that “Uber is 100% welcome in Brussels and everywhere else as far as I am concerned.”
So the move hardly comes as a surprise, although for anyone concerned about the revolving door between senior politicians and the private sector, it should raise some serious eyebrows.
As Ars Technica notes, the appointment of Kroes by Uber falls outside the EC’s 18-month conflict of interest period, which is intended to throw a wedge in the unsightly revolving door that sees ex-politicians with powerful public sector connections switch to selling their services to the companies that used to lobby them whilst they were in public office. Albeit not a permanent wedge, clearly.
Kroes’ appointment is especially interesting given that the EC is currently paying some very specific attention to Uber. Last October, Kroes’ former employer launched a study of the company — aiming to probe the social, economic and legal consequences of its business operations, with a view to deciding whether new legislation might be needed to properly regulate its business.
The study also looks at the impact of similar “transportation network companies” (TNCs), as the EC calls them.
One key question is whether the EC will end up deciding TNCs should be considered transportation services, and regulated as such — rather than just as (Uber’s preferred self-categorization) digital platform providers.
The EC describes this review as a “first analysis,” setting out to gather data on the various questions and concerns being generated by these types of business models. So there’s no explicit threat to Uber’s modus operandi at a European Union level, as yet. But the Commission does suggest there could be scope for a coordinated response in the future.
“European institutions have the competence to bring together the fragmented response to TNCs which is happening at the national level. This could be done through legislation, regulatory actions or the judiciary,” it notes.
Evidently Uber will be hoping Kroes’ presence on its public policy board, and the advice she is able to feed them, helps steer away the threat of any new European-wide moves to undermine its regulatory advantages versus traditional taxi firms.
In a blog announcing the full complement of policy board members (eight in all), Uber’s chief advisor and member of the board of directors, David Plouffe, expends a lot of pixels talking up the “societal benefits,” as Uber sees it, of its business, before moving on to the regulatory piece.
“Just a few years ago only one place (California) had a regulatory framework for ridesharing. Today more than 70 jurisdictions in the U.S. do, and many other places around the globe are following suit, including in Australia, Canada, India, the Philippines and Mexico,” he enthuses. “As ridesharing continues to grow, we look forward to the Board’s candid advice and insights.”
As well as Kroes, Uber’s policy board also includes another former senior politician: Ray LaHood, the former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
A spokesman for Uber declined to answer a question asking how it responds to criticism of the revolving door between senior politicians and the private sector.
TechCrunch understands all board members are being financially recompensed for their policy work for Uber.
It’s not Kroes’ only private sector appointment since leaving public office. Back in March it was announced she would be joining the board of directors of Salesforce.com. That appointment became effective on May 1.