Brussels set to raise stakes for six nations over gambling curbs

Germany and five other European Union countries will today face renewed pressure to abolish restrictive laws on gambling and sports betting operators, as part of a wider campaign by the Commission to inject more competition into one of the most politically sensitive sectors in the region.

Brussels last year opened no fewer than 10 infringement cases alleging that countries including Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and Austria were in breach of EU internal market rules. The Commission argues that gambling operators should be treated like other service providers and has so far enjoyed the backing of the European Court of Justice.

Officials familiar with the cases say today’s actions are directed against Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Hungary. The bulk of cases is certain to be waved through by the college of commissioners, although the body might postpone legal action against some governments.

Along with Italy, the six countries were given a first warning in April last year, and the Commission is now poised to take the next step by issuing so-called reasoned opinions in four cases. This is the last move before taking a government to the European Court.

In the case of Germany and the Netherlands, the Commission would broaden its accusations by issuing a second set of warnings about the countries‘ domestic legislation, officials said.

Brussels‘ support for private sector gambling and sports betting companies has opened up a rift – not just with many European capitals but also with the US, where it is illegal for banks and credit card companies to process online bets placed by US citizens with foreign gambling sites.

Charlie McCreevy, EU internal market commissioner, has warned Washington over possible legal action at the World Trade Organisation over its anti-gambling laws.

The Commission’s campaign at home was boosted this month when Europe’s highest court slammed Italy for its gambling restrictions, including the country’s use of criminal penalties against individuals accepting bets.

According to long-standing court jurisprudence, countries are allowed to impose restrictions on private sector gambling operators – but these curbs must be non-discriminatory, proportionate and consistent.

The European Betting Association, representing private operators, said today’s expected actions were justified. „None of the countries targeted has shown any sign of engaging in the necessary reforms. On the contrary, some have recently been moving towards more stringent prosecutions of European-licensed operators despite the fact that the legal basis for these actions was seriously questioned by the EU authorities,“ it said.