The new Internal Market Commissioner for the European Commission, Michael Barnier, has online gambling regulation high on his list of priorities following a deadline set by European parliamentarians.
European state lotteries alone generate Euro 70 billion in revenues each year, and the running fight between online gambling firms anxious to have access across the Union in terms of its "free movement of goods and services" principles, and state monopolies anxious to exclude them needs resolution, many MEPs feel.
The European Court of Justice opinion appears to be that states have the right to control online gambling for their citizens where there is a clear imperative that it is to protect them and is for the common good. This is by no means exclusive of the free goods and services principle, however, although it has certainly added an element of legal confusion.
The tension between the European Commission, formerly headed by Charlie McCreevy, and the right of national regulators to monitor the trade is a concern for MEPs. At present no specific EU rules on online gambling exist. Several countries have tried to ban cross-border online betting and the European Commission has launched proceedings against them for flouting internal market rules.
Barnier recently addressed the issue before the European Parliament (see previous InfoPowa reports) and was urged to come up with common rules to regulate cross border online gambling in Europe.
Speaking in the debate Barnier promised a "new approach" with a Green paper on possible policy options by the end of the year.
The debate was in response to an oral question tabled by five MEPs and led by the chairman of the Internal Market Committee, British MEP Malcolm Harbour. Speaking in the debate, Harbour said: "It is absolutely the right time for the Commission to be coming out with a clear strategy".
He went on to say that online gambling "can be regulated and must be regulated", and stressed the importance of giving people the right to choose: "We must also respect our citizens and the fact that many of them want to access online gambling" so "it can't be right to ban online gambling with a company from outside your own country".
Andreas Schwab of the European People's Party called for "uniform cross-border solutions at the European level".
The woman who steered the services directive through Parliament in 2006, German Socialist Evelyne Gebhardt called on the Commission to stop "quite improper" infringement procedures. She said "member states should not be forced to open market up if their controls are strong and effective and we want the Commission to finally understand this".
For the Greens, Heide Ruhle said that European rules should respect "European specificities", adding: "These are not services just like any other"
In terms of the possible legal and social dangers of gambling Dutch MEP Dennis De Jong of the leftist GUE/NGL told the House "we should limit online gambling as much as possible and we should ask the Commission not to lower the level of protection".
Speaking at the end of the debate, Barnier said: "Make no mistake; I have come to talk about a new approach". He went on to say "these are not services just like any other. Fighting cross-border crime without a European approach is impossible. We have to have strict limits so that minors can't play and on this we need EU coordination".
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