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Greece and William Hill get ready to rumble, as gambling arrests continue

Placanica to be put to the test

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House of Cards Precedent be damned. That apparently is the approach Greece is taking to recent developments in EU case law covering the cross border provision of gambling services.

Not to be dissuaded by recent European Court of Justice (ECJ) rulings, Greece this week arrested nine people in conjunction with internet gambling operations run out of internet cafes in Arta.

Three internet cafe owners, who had installed the gambling software of an unnamed UK bookmaker on the computers in the cafes, as well as six of their customers, were arrested in the raids. Maybe not coincidentally, the arrests followed an announcement by British bookmaker William Hill that it had filed for gaming licences in Greece and was planning to challenge the decisions in the ECJ if the Greek government refused to grant the licenses.

The recent ECJ ruling in the Placanica case stated pretty emphatically that criminal penalties would almost never be considered appropriate in situations involving licensing restrictions. The landmark case laid out a proportionality requirement for national governments to follow when restricting gambling services in the name of public welfare. In light of that ruling, it seems odd that Greece would take such a drastic step.

Greece is one of several European Union countries that maintain a national gambling monopoly, and the ECJ has held that member states may retain gambling monopolies if it serves the public good of reducing the social ills associated with gambling. However, most of the national monopolies are significant and growing sources of revenue for the national governments involved, which is of course at odds with the social goal of reducing gambling opportunities. As the president of OPAP, the Greek monopolist, noted tellingly, "The only company with the right to operate betting in Greece is OPAP. Some people are getting rich while the Greek state hemorrhages."

That was the gist of the problem with Italy in Placanica, and could well be the problem with Greece's monopoly, OPAP, which has seen strong revenue growth in the last year. Is Greece serious about reducing problem gambling, or just serious about preserving its national monopoly?

This gambit by William Hill, the second largest bookmaker in the UK, could well force Greece's hand and provide one more nail in the coffin to protectionist gaming policies. Let the games begin. ®

Burke Hansen, attorney at large, heads a San Francisco law office

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