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Pressure mounts on Brussels to deliver on Airbnb rules

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Tourism is back — and so is cities’ irritation with platform-driven tourism.

For once, that ire is aimed not at the platforms themselves, but at Brussels. A long-awaited European Union rulebook on short-term rental platforms like Airbnb was pushed back over the summer — fueling the impatience of a group of European cities and lawmakers. Such rentals negatively affect the affordability and liveability of cities, they claim, and the delay further exacerbates the problem.

In a letter dated July 14, seen by POLITICO and signed by dozens of MEPs and more than 10 European cities, the European Commission was urged “to urgently go forward” with its so-called short-term rental initiative.

Counterintuitively, Airbnb having a big summer — however annoying it may be to cities — could help keep the issue on the Commission’s list of priorities. The bloc has otherwise been very occupied by so-called horizontal legislation, such as digital competition and content moderation, raising concern that more sector-specific legislation would continue taking a back seat.

A contentious debate

With the new rulebook, the EU’s executive is set to wade into a debate that for years mostly played out within cities, courtrooms and EU member countries.

An EU-wide survey the Commission conducted from September to December last year to prepare for the initiative revealed how contentious the topic is — the survey got 5,696 responses, an unusually high number. In addition to platforms like Airbnb and Booking.com, a coalition of cities also weighed in, calling itself the European Cities Alliance on Short-Term Holiday Rentals. Among the cities were major tourism hotspots like Amsterdam, Barcelona, Paris and Berlin.

Since then, the timing of the expected rulebook has been in flux. It originally featured on the Commission’s agenda for June 1 — but was pushed back to the fall. It resurfaced on a draft Commission’s agenda seen by POLITICO for October 12, but was scrapped again later.

Such ongoing delays are testing the nerves of a wide coalition of European lawmakers — comprising MEPs from the Greens, S&D, The Left, EPP and Renew — as well as cities and urban policy lobbying groups like Eurocities.

“We are extremely worried the proposal currently no longer features on the list of initiatives planned to be launched until December,” lawmakers and cities wrote in the July 14 letter directed to Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager and Commissioner Thierry Breton. Short-term rentals have already affected housing prices, they wrote, and the current cost-of-living crisis adds fuel to the fire.

“Current increases in the cost of living, rents and house prices are putting many European households under escalating financial pressures,” the letter reads.

Illegal content

Signatories of the letter, and other observers, suspect that the Commission needs some time to figure out how the rulebook will relate to other EU laws, like the content-moderating Digital Services Act and the bloc’s data protection rules, the General Data Protection Regulation.

Initially, there were calls to address short-term rental platforms in the DSA. One of the proposal’s catchphrases was: “What is illegal, should be illegal offline.” Part of the debate around short-term rental platforms is whether listings that defy local regulation should be considered “illegal content” that platforms should tackle. In their feedback, the aforementioned European Cities Alliance advocated for such action.

Greens MEP Kim van Sparrentak is in charge of European Parliament’s report on affordable housing | European Union

But it didn’t happen. “We spoke to the Commission [and asked]: Are you gonna tackle this in the DSA, or will there be a lex specialis as a plug-in onto the DSA? They said: ‘No, let’s not handle this in the DSA, because that’s horizontal regulation,'” Greens MEP Kim van Sparrentak, in charge of Parliament’s report on affordable housing, said. “But then you have to deliver it, of course.”

Another point of controversy is cities’ access to the short-term rental platforms’ data. Cities claimed in their feedback that they needed access to all kinds of data (such as the host’s identification data, the number of beds in the accommodation, and the number of nights rented out) to enforce local rules — but platforms have said these requests were “incompatible” with the GDPR.

Van Sparrentak sides with the cities in this one: “The problem at the moment with Airbnb is that there is no obligation to share data, which makes it impossible to enforce. There are already a lot of cities with regulation[s] on short-term rentals … but they can’t enforce it because there is no obligation to share the data that might be needed.”

Asked for a comment, a Commission spokesperson said that the Commission planned to adopt an initiative in the fall, focusing “on transparency issues in the short-term rental sector.”

Airbnb, in a statement, said that 4 in 10 EU hosts say that hosting on Airbnb helps them to cope with the rising cost of living. “We continue to support the EU’s work to update its rules and unlock the benefits of hosting and the single market for more Europeans,” the platform said.

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