EU countries should ban companies in the sharing economy only as a "measure of last resort," the bloc's executive recommended Thursday, as firms like Uber and Airbnb struggle to win over regulators in Europe.
The Uber car-sharing service has run into legal trouble in several European countries amid opposition from established transport firms, while the Airbnb service for room and apartment rentals has been restricted in countries such as Germany and Belgium.
"The collaborative economy is an opportunity for consumers, entrepreneurs and businesses – provided we get it right," EU Internal Market Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska said.
The existing patchwork of national regulations creates uncertainty for businesses and consumers and may "hamper innovation, job creation and growth," the commission warned.
Its aim is to level the playing field by setting out how existing EU rules apply to the still relatively new collaborative economy. The guidelines are aimed at national authorities, market operators and interested citizens.
Uber welcomed the commission's guidelines, which show that "EU laws protect collaborative economy services against undue restrictions," and ask member states to "review regulations that undermine their development," the company said in a statement.
The sharing economy "is here to stay and to grow," Bienkowska noted. "We can close our eyes, we can close our ears and lose our energy on trying to prevent innovation from happening. But we rather chose that we should focus on framing it correctly."
The commission issued a 16-page communication with a laundry list of policy recommendations, including the guidance that absolute bans on activities "normally constitute a measure of last resort."
"You cannot put an absolute ban on an activity if the reason for this is only protecting existing business models," Bienkowska said.
The paper specifically mentions the banning of short-term apartment rentals as a negative example. The German capital Berlin for instance this year introduced new rules that allow the renting out of a spare bedroom, but not of entire holiday apartments to tourists.
The commission suggested that a cap on how much a home is rented out would be a better approach.
"Banning short-term letting of apartments appears generally difficult to justify when the short-term rental use of properties can, for example, be limited to a maximum number of days per year," it said.
In addition, service providers should only have to obtain a business licence "where strictly necessary" for public interest. Member states should not put "disproportionate" obligations on occasional traders, it adds, noting that online mechanisms exist to increase consumer trust.
The commission said its guidelines will help to ensure that "existing EU law is consistently applied" across the bloc. If the laws are violated, the commission has tools to enforce them, its Vice President Jyrki Katainen noted.
The new recommendations apply only to activities that generate an income, not collaborative economy services that are offered for free.