This article was produced by Olswang LLP, which joined with CMS on 1 May 2017.
Against the background of Placanica, the European Commission is pressing ahead with its infringement action against several member states, whilst Europe's most determined monopolists remain unbowed.
Commission presses on with infringement actions
As reported in our previous update, the European Commission is pressing ahead with its infringement actions against several member states which ban commercial online gambling but license state monopolies to undertake similar activities. With its hand strengthened by the Placanica ruling, the Commission has taken the further step of issuing reasoned opinions against Denmark, Finland and Hungary. In the event that satisfactory replies are not received within two months, the Commission has warned that it could refer the matter to the ECJ.
Away from home, the European Commission has also warned the United States that it is considering taking action through the World Trade Organisation in response to the USA's prohibition on internet gambling.
French resistance holds firm
In spite of events at the ECJ and the European Commission, the French authorities have not wavered in their aggressive defence of their state-sponsored monopolies PMU and FDJ. Recently, the former head of 888 John Anderson was summoned to France for questioning. Like Bwin, whose chief executives were arrested in connection with the sponsorship of AS Monaco, 888 had a sponsorship deal with Toulouse football club. Although the deal was terminated in December 2006, it was negotiated whilst Anderson was chief executive. Anderson was permitted to leave France after questioning, but the authorities have reportedly stated that he could yet be asked to return for further questioning. In addition, it has also been reported that the head of Belgian casino operator Partouche has been given a 12-month suspended prison sentence and a fine as a result of his involvement in an online gaming site which targeted French residents.
We also understand that a draft Bill is making its way through the French parliament which, if it became law, would allow the government to freeze financial transactions with gambling websites and prohibit advertising by such sites.
Maltese operators remain defiant
As reported in our January update, the Maltese Court of Appeal refused to uphold a French judgment preventing Maltese online gambling operator Zeturf taking bets from French residents. Another Maltese gambling company, Expekt, has been in the news this month, after a Swedish court authorised fines of over US$20,000 against any newspaper publishing gambling advertisements. Expekt has publicly stated its intention to challenge Swedish state gambling monopoly Svenska Spel through aggressive advertising, and Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet is reported to have stated that it will probably appeal the decision (which would delay any fines), and continue to publish Expekt's adverts.
Germany warned by European Commission
Germany has recently become the latest member state to be warned by the European Commission that its gambling laws could be in breach of EU law. In addition, the EU has released its technical opinion on the aspects of the draft State Treaty which prohibit commercial internet betting and lottery operators from providing services to German residents. The opinion reportedly concluded that the ban would be disproportionate, which could ultimately lead to amendment of the draft legislation.
German state betting monopoly Oddset has also been hit by further bad news, with German football authorities reportedly threatening legal action after major sponsorship deals with commercial sports betting companies such as Bwin were outlawed in certain states.
Greece's state gambling monopoly OPAP has announced record profits, whilst the government has begun to crack down on commercial gambling sites. We understand that that nine people have recently been arrested for offences relating to using a UK gambling service instead of OPAP, although it is hard to see how any legal action could be justified in light of the Placanica judgment.
Meanwhile, William Hill has challenged OPAP's monopoly by requesting a licence to operate betting shops in Greece. Whilst it appears likely that the licence request will be rejected, William Hill, seemingly emboldened by Placanica, has announced that it will challenge any such decision in the courts.
… and Norwegians would, too
Beyond the EU, Norway has recently been given the go-ahead to set up a state gambling monopoly by the European Free Trade Association. We understand that this decision was based on the premise that the monopoly's main aim will be to control problem gambling. However, it has been reported that Norwegian commercial operators intend to challenge the establishment of the monopoly through the national courts.