Ordering, tracking and paying for a taxi service with just a few clicks. A few years ago, this was hard to imagine, but digital innovations such as Uber have now become mainstream. As regulators, we are playing catch up. All too often, our outdated laws provide barriers to new and exciting homegrown services. And existing service providers feel threatened, resulting, for example, in a number of physical assaults on Uber (pop) drivers by taxi drivers in Brussels and Amsterdam.
The controversy around Uber is a prequel to a more fundamental discussions on the next wave of digitisation of our economy. In the next few years, it's likely we will see the development of hundreds of thousands of (service) apps, challenging existing business models. You could compare it with the 19th Century struggle between the guilds and the mass producers who introduced the steam engine. We need to prepare for this struggle, not by slamming on the brakes, but by embracing change.
Europe is already missing the online boat: a streaming music provider like Spotify had trouble rolling out its service in Europe, and its competitor Pandora is not active on the European market at all, because of royalty issues. In general, policy makers and politicians have been very reluctant to accept concepts like citizens producing their own energy, providing bed and breakfasts (Airbnb), sharing cars (Snappcar) or providing taxi services (Uberpop). We have seen witch-hunts against ordinary people who use these apps to try to earn extra income.
At a time of continuing sluggish economic growth in many European countries, combined with unacceptably high levels of unemployment - nearly 25million Europeans are unable to find a job - the growth of the 'app economy' should be seen as part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. Already over one million Europeans are working in the app developer sector, by 2018 this could be almost three million people.
To help deliver a strong "app" economy, the following measures must be taken at European level.
First of all, we need a quick adoption of proposed new EU telecom's legislation, which we hope will end roaming charges and deliver a European definition of "net neutrality", to protect the open nature of our internet. It is a scandal that many EU Governments are doing their best to water down these proposals in Brussels. The European market is now completely fragmented, which makes it impossible for the app economy to thrive.
Secondly, the European Commission should propose a single European telecoms regulator, akin to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States. We need to get rid of the 28 national regulatory kingdoms and 28 sets of digital competition rules that currently exist in Europe. A single European telecoms regulator would provide one set of rules and reduce bureaucratic hurdles for innovative European companies who want to trade across borders.
The third policy action for making Europe app-friendly, is to apply the "Cassis de Dijon" approach to the creation of the digital single market. As a result of this famous 1979 arrest by the European Court of Justice, products that were accepted in one EU member state, automatically gain access to the entire European market. Why not apply this same ruling to online products and services?.
Of course, I am not saying that governments should accept any kind of new service, but rejecting and blocking innovations ex ante gives a negative signal to entrepreneurs and startups. We need those innovators in Europe.
It is time that Europe opens its borders to innovation. There is no way back, the only way is app.
Guy Verhofstadt is Leader of the European Liberals and Democrats in the European ParliamentSuggest a correction