The European Commission (EC) has announced (7 December 2017) it is closing its infringement procedures against EU member states relating to the treatment of gambling. The EC says the decision is “in line with its political commitment to be more strategic in enforcing EU law”. The news is more than a little disappointing for those of us who have spent too much of our lives reading about the activities of Gambelli, Placanica et al.

The reasoning given by the EC for choosing to close the proceedings is curious. The European Commission believes that gambling complaints against EU member states “can be handled more efficiently by national courts”.

But it was the various national courts’ unwillingness or inability to rule on their domestic gambling markets over the years which meant that so many cases were referred to European courts for a ruling in the first place. It is also true, however, that the rulings given by European Court of Justice did not always deliver the clarity that was required. Both sides in a case would often claim “victory” when a ruling was issued.

The EC’s statement says:
The Court of Justice of the European Union has repeatedly recognised Member States’ rights to restrict gambling services where necessary to protect public interest objectives such as the protection of minors, the fight against gambling addiction and the combat of irregularities and fraud. The Commission acknowledges the broader political legitimacy of the public interest objectives that Member States are pursuing when regulating gambling services. The Commission also notes Member States’ efforts to modernise their online gambling legal frameworks, channel citizens’ demand for gambling from unregulated offer to authorised and supervised websites, and ensure that operators pay taxes. With that in mind, it is not a priority for the Commission to use its infringement powers to promote an EU Single Market in the area of online gambling services.

Clive Hawkswood, CEO of the Remote Gaming Association, has commented that “the existence of infringement proceedings and the Commission’s subsequent pressure on Member States to comply with EU law has helped with the introduction of many effective and sensible regulatory regimes for online gambling across Europe. However, many other cases have been left to languish for several years and many unlawful restrictions to the free provisions of services have yet to be addressed. In those circumstances we are of course dismayed that, with regard to the Internal Market, the Commission has effectively abandoned our sector and given a free pass to non-compliant regimes.”

Many EU member states never really wanted to open their gambling markets to competition. The EC’s decision comes at a key time for markets like Germany and the Netherlands where there is still on-going uncertainty about new legislation for internet gambling. Other jurisdictions, too, might also now pause their regulatory development, given they have been handed back the right to decide on the issue of gambling.

As the EC states clearly: it is not a priority for the Commission to use its infringement powers to promote an EU Single Market in the area of online gambling services.