EU urged to investigate ex-politician’s Uber links and rein in tech lobbyists

Neelie Kroes has denied any inappropriate behaviour. Photograph: Dpa Picture Alliance/Alamy

The Uber files

MEPs call for inquiry into Neelie Kroes while cab-hailing firm could lose access to European parliament

Tue 12 Jul 2022 17.24 BST

EU authorities have been urged to investigate a former politician linked to Uber and consider stripping the cab-hailing company of access passes to the European parliament, amid growing calls to rein in tech lobbyists.

Nearly two dozen Socialist Democrat and Green MEPs wrote to the European Commission on Tuesday calling for an investigation into its former vice-president Neelie Kroes over documents that appear to show she helped Uber lobby the Dutch government soon after leaving her post in 2014 as the EU’s top official for internet policy.

Kroes has denied any inappropriate behaviour. In the wake of the revelations the commission promised to write to her asking for “clarification” of media reports.

The demand for an EU inquiry comes as some politicians weigh up tighter rules on lobbying after the publication of the Uber files, a trove of data leaked to the Guardian and shared with media in 29 countries via the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

An Indian minister told the Indian Express it was “disturbing” that big tech platforms had used technology “to evade scrutiny and bypass laws”, and promised tougher controls on the sector. Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the minister for electronics and IT, said that in future “within new rules and laws, the opportunity of big tech platforms to violate Indian laws or do something illegal such as this will narrow considerably”.

The Uber files detail how the firm used covert technology to throw authorities off its scent, sought to exploit violent protests by angry taxi drivers, and had undeclared meetings with ministers and senior officials, as part of an aggressive lobbying campaign to break into markets around the world.

In Italy, taxi drivers stopped their vehicles across the country on Tuesday in protest at the revelations, the news agency Ansa reported. Drivers have been protesting for weeks against a bill that would expose them to more competition from the likes of Uber.

Ireland’s taoiseach, Michéal Martin, told the Irish Times there should be greater transparency around lobbying and business after the disclosures, which detailed how an official turned Uber lobbyist promised to drop documents to the then finance minister’s home.

Spain’s deputy prime minister and labour minister, Yolanda Díaz, who introduced a law requiring online delivery companies to employ their couriers, said democracy needed to be deepened in response to reports of Uber’s activities in her country.

The files have had a big impact in France, with President Emmanuel Macron under fire from his domestic opponents on the left and far right after his efforts to disrupt France’s closed-shop taxi industry as economy minister between 2014 and 2016 were revealed.

In Brussels, the European parliament president has been asked to investigate the conduct of Uber lobbyists “and if necessary deactivate their passes” to the institution, curtailing their access to 705 lawmakers and their staff. Daniel Freund, a German Green MEP, said the company could be guilty of a “very deliberate violation” of the rules in place for lobbyists at the time, because it had sought to keep secret a relationship with Kroes at a time when she was barred from lobbying the EU executive.

Freund also put his name to a letter with 22 other MEPs calling for the EU executive to investigate the former vice-president. The group called on the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, to consider sanctions against Kroes if the investigation found she had broken EU ethics rules.

Under EU rules a former commissioner can lose their pension if found to be in breach of ethics rules, which include a lifelong commitment to “integrity and discretion”.

The European Trade Union Confederation, an umbrella organisation with members in 39 countries, called for the suspension of parliamentary access passes for Uber staff, pending an investigation, while claiming the company was “lobbying hard to try and water down EU legislation on the rights of platform workers”.

EU lawmakers are debating a draft law that would require gig-economy companies to give their workers the minimum wage, sick pay and holidays, a proposal that has been criticised by firms that would be affected.

Uber has said it has updated its lobbying rules, strengthening requirements and oversight, since the period covered in the leak.

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Jennifer Rankin in Brussels