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UberX arrives in Brussels amid backlash

The more expensive of Uber's services -- it uses professional drivers -- expands options for fans of the ride-hailing service, but rival taxi drivers won't be as cheery.

UberX is arriving in Brussels.

Josh Miller/CNET

Uber is bringing its higher-end UberX ride-hailing service to the streets of Brussels, but not without controversy.

The UberX undertaking in the Belgian capital is starting Thursday with 20 professional drivers with a commercial license. It is more expensive than the company's UberPop service, which allows users to ride with private drivers.

Since arriving in Paris in 2011, San Francisco-based Uber has faced sometimes violent opposition from European taxi drivers, who see the app-driven service as unfair competition. They complain that it bypasses local laws on licensing and safety.

Uber, which connects passengers with drivers via a smartphone app, has faced controversy since its inception. While many passengers find the service convenient, many non-Uber taxi drivers are angry and fearful about losing business.

The company's classification of drivers as contractors means that it is not responsible for all sorts of costs, including health insurance, paid sick days and overtime. Drivers also supply and maintain their own cars, so Uber doesn't pay for gas, repairs and related expenses. The company says it allows drivers to be their own bosses, able to drive as much or as little as they want.

The highest-valued venture-backed company in the world with an estimated valuation of more than $50 billion, Uber has been active in Brussels for more than a year and said it felt now was the time to launch UberX.

"We took note of people asking for more options. Having more choice to move around town contributes to people leaving their cars at home," the release noted, calling Brussels the most congested city in Europe.

In July, Uber suspended UberPop in Paris after it faced protests from taxi drivers who must buy a license that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. They say the competition is destroying their livelihood. UberX has encountered strong opposition from licensed taxi drivers elsewhere, too, as in Australia.

Uber said it plans to continue with UberPop in Belgium, Reuters reported Thursday. The company's press conference was held on short notice to avoid protests outside, Reuters added.

The European Commission is keeping tabs on Uber's place in the continental economy.

"We are considering how we can encourage the development of new and innovative services without favouring one business model over another," European Commission spokeswoman Lucia Caudet said in an emailed statement. "The sharing economy has the potential to create additional growth and jobs. But there may also be issues related to consumer rights and safety, taxes and labour law that should be looked at."

In the last 10 months, Uber has filed complaints against the governments of France, Germany and Spain for what it argues is the application of local laws that are contrary to European legislation. The European Commission has begun looking into these complaints and into the restrictions and protections applied to the taxi industry across the region.

An Uber spokesperson said that the company is all about keeping Brussels moving and connecting people to safe, reliable and affordable transport at the tap of a button. "We're proud to bring more choices ... to one of the most congested cities in Europe," Uber said.