Will the EU ban some types of betting to end match-fixing?
by Francesco Guarascio
The European Commission is considering a ban on certain forms of gambling, in a bid to tackle the quickly-spreading plague of match-fixing that is blighting major sporting events
"We have to consider minimum rules on conflicts of interest, perhaps with a ban on certain types of gambling or the creation of more rigorous control systems", the European Commissioner for the Internal Market Michel Barnier explained to an audience of nearly 300 gambling experts in the European Parliament in Brussels this week. "It is a controversial area for us", an industry source, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells PublicServiceEurope.com. "It is not clear yet what Barnier has in his mind. He could refer to banning novelty bets, which are bets made during a game, such as free kicks, or he may hint at banning games for those aged under 18." Another option could be to prohibit sponsors of football teams or sport events from placing bets on the events themselves. "For instance Française des Jeux, allegedly the biggest state monopoly in France, may be prevented from placing bets on the Tour de France of which they are an official sponsor," the expert says.
The European Commission has wanted to take steps to regulate betting for a very long time, despite the fact that the internet has helped to multiply the number of gamblers; making it a widespread phenomenon across the European Union. It is estimated that around seven million Europeans gamble online, according to EU figures. Barnier's vague announcement will certainly not be the last word on the issue. A commission document outlining possible future actions is expected by October, but no legislative initiative is currently envisaged. Member states maintain control of the sector and are reluctant to hand it to Brussels, fearing that they may lose the precious cash cows that their national monopolies on betting represent.
Outlawing gambling altogether is obviously not on the cards, as the move would almost certainly result in a surge of illegal activities - pushing revenues away from public coffers and towards organised crime. On the other hand, the existing situation is also untenable, mired as it is by match-fixing and other fraud. "The risk of fraud in sports competitions, although present since the outset, has been exacerbated since the emergence of the online sports betting sector and represents a risk to the integrity of sport," reads a European Parliament resolution on online betting adopted last November.
Cases of football match-fixing activities have now been recorded in almost all European countries. Ongoing enquiries in Italy have revealed the involvement of top football players in match-fixing activities, including a member of the Italian squad, Domenico Criscito, which is competing for the Euro 2012 championship in Poland and Ukraine. He was excluded from the team when he was notified that he was to be investigated by Italian judges. Even matches at the Olympic Games have probably been fixed, it seems. Declan Hill, one of the top experts on criminal infiltration in sport, alleges in his bestselling book The Fix that the match between Ghana and Japan in the 2004 Olympics was prearranged. Other sports have not been spared. In December 2011, eleven people were sanctioned by the British Horse racing Authority for their parts in race fixing. The sins included both owners betting on their own horses to lose and jockeys riding horses to lose.
And last month, a 24-year-old professional cricketer was jailed for four months after admitting being paid to bowl badly in the first over of a match. While in November 2011, three Pakistani cricketers were jailed in England for their parts in a plot to fix parts of a Lord's Test match. "Match fixing, occurring with the involvement of organised crime structures from non-European jurisdictions, is deemed the most severe threat to sport betting operations and the integrity of sport competitions," said the European Commissioner for Sport Androulla Vassiliou during this week's press conference in the European Parliament.
Limiting certain kinds of bets could help reduce the impact of match-fixing, but it is unlikely to eradicate the problem. There are suggestions that the creation of a real European market for betting might help. This could make easier for consumers to spot illegal gamblers, which flourish in the current fragmented market, where legal operators in one member state may be labeled as illegal in another. The European Court of Justice has already rebuked national legislators in several EU countries - including Germany - which prevent foreign gamblers from operating in their territory. Defensive legislation is often written with an eye to protecting national champions, rather than by a genuine desire to limit gambling - argued the court. Despite this, the commission has been slow to start the infringement procedures, which usually follow a court ruling.
In his speech in the parliament, Barnier hinted at the possible reactivation of infringement procedures - causing an expected positive reaction from the industry. Secretary General of the European Gaming and Betting Association – the industry's main body - Sigrid Ligné welcomed the suggestion saying that "full adherence with EU legal principles is the bedrock of any EU regulatory endeavor". Policing infringements could bring Europe much closer to developing a genuine single market for betting, addressing the legal loopholes which have so far prevented it. Many gaming companies would stand to gain from it. In the long run, a single passport to operate in all EU countries could be established - avoiding costly compliance with several different jurisdictions and their different sets of legislation. The question is whether criminal organisations will exploit such developments as well. So far, they have made huge returns from the migration of betting to the internet. Will match-fixing flourish together with legal betting? We must hope not.
The fact they are considering outlawing certain betting markets shows how little they really understand the problem. In 2005, betting in Germany was highly restricted. That did not prevent one of the biggest scandals in football history. You would think that the European Commission would consider employing some real experts in this field before making such statements. Who were these 300 gambling experts, if they did not pick up on this?
Ben P - London