Leaders of online gambling groups are accusing the Belgian authorities of trying to intimidate them by detaining the co-chief executive of Bwin.party and are demanding swift European Commission action to enforce market competition.
Norbert Teufelberger was detained by Belgian police in Brussels last Tuesday at the end of a gambling conference, and taken away for two hours of questioning.
The Belgian Gambling Commission accuses Bwin.party of being in breach of its gambling legislation, a view countered by the group, which claims Belgium is not complying with European Union law.
The industry is now looking to put pressure on the European Commission to enforce its laws and take action at countries such as Belgium and Greece.
In a letter to the Financial Times, 14 chief executives, presidents and managing directors of online gambling groups complain that it is three years since the commission raised doubts about Belgium’s gambling regulations.
“While the Belgian authorities are free to intimidate Europe’s leading online gaming groups with threats about the consequences of challenging their domestic gambling laws, the European Commission has yet to receive an answer to its own concerns regarding the regulatory regime in Belgium …” the letter states.
The authors, who include the chief executives of William Hill, Sportingbet, 888 Holdings, Victor Chandler International and bet365, as well as Mr Teufelberger himself, highlight the proximity of the Belgian police action to Commission headquarters.
The police intervention, “but a stone’s throw” from the European parliament and the commission, was “a stark reminder of the legal uncertainty that prevails” in European online gambling, the letter says.
The authors call on Michel Barnier, internal market commissioner, to enforce EU law swiftly.
“Countries such as Belgium and Greece that are in clear breach of EU law and that are seeking to enforce those laws domestically are likely to be at the top of the list,” they wrote.
“The time for polite rhetoric is now over. It is time for deeds not words.”
Clive Hawkswood, chief executive of trade body the Remote Gambling Association, said examples of protectionist behaviour were occurring more frequently because of a lack of action from the commission.
Last week, Bulgaria announced it was introducing a 15 per cent tax on gambling companies’ turnover, a “completely unviable” rate, said Mr Hawkswood.
“Member states appear to see the commission as a dog that rarely barks and never bites at all,” he said.
The RGA said a letter from online gambling companies was being sent to Mr Barnier pressing the case for action.
A spokesman for the commissioner said: “We are following what is happening in Belgium closely. If we find that Belgium violates EU law, we will not hesitate to launch infringement proceedings.”
The commission said it was also aware of “a lot of concern about the compatibility of Greek law with EU law” and was in contact with the Greek authorities.
Bwin.party has said it will continue to talk to Belgium’s gambling commission.