Athens raid reopens gaming dispute

Greek authorities have raided a sports betting outlet in central Athens belonging to Britain’s Stanleybet, only a week after it began to operate in a challenge to the Greek state-owned gaming monopoly, known as OPAP.

The decision is likely to reignite argument about lack of access for private gaming companies that want to provide sports betting services in several European Union markets where lucrative monopolies exist.

Gaming companies have fought a long legal battle in an effort to open up this sector across the 27-country bloc.

Five years ago they appeared to be on a winning streak when an important decision by the top European court in a test case found that any restrictions to the fundamental freedom of establishment had to be proportionate and non-discriminatory.

Since then, Brussels has launched investigations into restrictions in 10 countries – which appear designed to protect state-owned gaming monopolies and the like – and produced “final warnings” in about half those cases.

But the European Commission has been slow to pursue any infringement proceedings against those countries, prompting an angry letter this week from sports betting operators to José Manuel Barroso, the president of the Commission.

Stanleybet had challenged OPAP’s monopoly by opening two outlets: one in the capital and and the other in Thessaloniki, in the north.

The company had been waiting since 2005 for the council of state, the country’s highest legal authority, to rule on its application to extend its international network to Greece

But Greek police this week temporarily shut down Stanleybet’s shop in central Athens and arrested one employee on the ground that it was conducting illegal betting. IT equipment and EUR 5,500 (USD 7,000, GBP 4,450) in cash were confiscated, they said.

The raid followed a complaint by OPAP, which under Greek law holds a monopoly on gambling until 2020. A police statement said the shop was operating without a permit in order “to gain financially at the expense of the Greek state”.

The employee was later released. Advisers to the company said the shop was no longer closed but that the Greek authorities were investigating. Christos Hadjiemmanuil, OPAP’s chief executive, has been quoted as saying the group would launch internet betting in the UK if Stanleybet were allowed to operate in Greece.

The Commission declined to comment on the Stanleybet incident but said there was an intention “to move” on the country cases.

“Each case is different but they will have to move at a certain stage,” an official said, pointing out that the next discussion on infringement cases would be in late November and then again in the New Year.