Trade groups, analysts and investors called yesterday for the European Union’s executive body to speed up its investigation into 20 countries’ gambling regimes and punish the most blatant breaches of EU law.
The Remote Gambling Association, which represents dozens of European online gambling companies, said “irreparable and unjustifiable damage” will be done unless the commission takes firmer action.
Belgian authorities questioning Bwin.Party’s co-chief executive, in Brussels to lobby for equal treatment within the EU, was the latest “injustice”, said Clive Hawkswood, chief executive of the RGA.
“If the European Commission does not take the opportunity now, it might be lost forever. It is a critical moment,” added Brian Wright, the RGA’s business director.
But a day earlier, just before Norbert Teufelberger gave his concluding speech to delegates at the Responsible Gaming Day, an EU official had told industry officials why action might be slower than they like.
“Clearly next year we want to get these things off the table. That’s why we started the initiative on the same day,” European Commission official Werner Stengg said.
But he also warned: “We will have to deal with hundreds of pages of justifications and manpower is limited.”
Frustration is not limited to operators and their lobbyists. A fund manager from Bwin.Party’s largest shareholder, Denver-based Janus Capital, complained about “disjointed regulation in Europe in almost every sector — finance, commerce, energy. Europe is at a cross-roads. Does it want more Europe or less Europe?”
“Europe is not a banana republic, and Belgium is wrong to think it can do what it wants against the spirit of the EU, and hurt private markets, without any repercussions,'' said Wahid Chammas, fund manager at Janus Capital, which holds almost 10 percent of Bwin.Party stock.
“Belgium's regulator thinks they have the right to accuse these gaming companies of being illegal, but the ones who are really breaking the law are Belgium when they act in protectionist fashion.”
The European Commission has given 20 EU member states, including Belgium, 70 days to explain any areas where their gambling laws may violate EU rules.
Internal market commissioner Michel Barnier published his online gambling action plan
on October 23, and on the same day commission officials reopened investigations into nine infringement cases and 20 complaints.
Stengg said there were three courses of action. If countries have violated EU rules, and will not make changes, then the commission will take them to court.
Others will already have made their laws compliant and so infringement cases or complaints will be closed, although the most likely outcome is that governments will negotiate further regulatory changes with the commission, he said.
In the conference’s closing remarks, Teufelberger said the “reactivation of infringements and complaints against member states who flout EU law was an essential step forward”.
Online gambling companies’ ultimate goal is a single EU licence, but they hope the threat of infringement cases will stop countries’ unfair barriers to entry.
Bwin.Party has contested that Belgium’s strict gambling law, which only issues online gambling licences to companies with a land-based connection, violates EU rules.
Peter Naessens, the Belgian Gaming Commission’s legal adviser, said: “We think there’s no problem with the regulations; we are happy with them. But we are against a completely free market for gambling services.”
Shares in Bwin.Party ended Tuesday down more than 4 percent at 113.3p, but pressure on the shares eased as news spread that Teufelberger had been released after just two hours of questioning.
David Jennings, analyst at Irish stockbroker Davy, said: “At the heart of this incident is the question of whether Belgian national online gaming laws are consistent with EU law.”
The episode was “embarrassing” for Bwin.Party, and Teufelberger personally, but could benefit the whole sector if it adds momentum to an EU-wide approach, he said.