Brussels threatens court action over state betting monopolies

The European Commission will set itself on collision course with France, Sweden and Greece today when it orders them to end lucrative state-run sports betting monopolies.

Paris and Stockholm will be given a final chance to change their legislation or face court action, while Athens will receive an initial warning. Sweden has hinted at a willingness to compromise with Brussels, but the French say that they will defend state gambling operators against competition from the internet.

“France will not lie down,” said a spokesman for the French Finance Ministry, which received more than EUR 3.3 billion (GBP 2.2 billion) from horse racing betting, football pools and the national lottery last year.

Unless Paris agrees to open up its sports betting market, at least partially, the Commission appears likely to take action in the European Court of Justice.

The row does not concern the national lottery, whose monopoly is unchallenged.

Charlie McCreevy, the Internal Markets Commissioner, has thrown his weight behind internet gambling companies, which want a slice of the EUR 25 billion French betting market. He has decided to step up the pressure on France and Sweden after dismissing their claim that state monopolies were a safeguard against gambling addiction. He believes that the argument is a pretext for protectionism and points out that France’s national gambling operators themselves advertise for custom.

“A member state cannot invoke the need to restrict its citizens’ access to betting services if at the same time it incites and encourages them to participate in state lotteries, games of chance or betting which benefits the State’s finances,” Mr McCreevy said. He said that French state operators have also weakened their case by seeking to expand into other European markets.

The Pari Mutuel Urbain (PMU), which controls bets on horse racing in France, also takes money on Belgian races, for example. Last year, the PMU had revenue of EUR 8.1 billion and contributed EUR 1.02 billion to the French state budget. Its profits of about EUR 600 million are used to finance the French horse racing industry, which says it would collapse if the PMU monopoly was undermined.

Private anger

The internet gambling firm Unibet is to sue the organisers of the Tour de France for barring its team from this year’s event. Amaury Sport Organisation said it could be prosecuted if it allowed Unibet to take part. French authorities say that it is an offence for private gambling operators to advertise in France.