Home to the EU headquarters, Belgium has been known as a centre of commerce and culture since the Middle Ages. Even gambling has an impressive heritage: historians have discovered documents referring to card games and lotteries existing in Belgium as far back as 1300, and a national lottery as early at the 15th century. In the present day, gambling is still as active and as popular, although definitely somewhat more regulated now than in the days of old.
Online gambling in Belgium has been legal since 2002, unlike many other European countries which have effectively banned all gambling activities online. The country's position as the host of the EU puts a certain pressure on it to stand up as a model nation following the rules of free trade and the competitive marketplace, but this does on occasion conflict with how the Belgians would prefer to run things. The country still wants some sort of control over gambling activities, both online and in physical casinos, in order to protect vulnerable players from addiction.
Belgium manages this balancing act largely thanks to the introduction of the 2009 Gambling Act, which officially made them one and the same. In order for a company to provide an online gambling service in the country, such as online casinos, they must also possess a licence for a physical, brick-and-mortar operation. The government has kept a limit on the licences that can be granted, which makes it particularly difficult for new countries to comply with these restrictions. However, there are ways to circumnavigate these laws, as the case of bwin.party highlighted. Initially black-listed for being online only, the company was later granted a licence by partnering with the Belgian based Casino Kursaal Oostende NV.
Of course, there are companies that choose to flagrantly ignore these rules, offering their online services to Belgian citizens without the proper licences. In order to combat this, the Belgium Gaming Commission started compiling a blacklist of companies, which they pass on to ISP providers. The fines that accompany being placed on the list can be huge, with the largest one so far in the region of €100,000. Belgian citizens caught playing on these sites can expect a fee of around a quarter of this amount. Although some companies, including Malta-based Bet-at-home, have claimed that blocking their domain names is illegal data collection, these claims have unsurprisingly been rejected due to the fact that it is also illegal for them to be trying to operate in Belgium in the first place.
However, in trying to both comply with the EU regulations and keep a grasp of control, the Belgian government has found its approach moving out of alignment with EU mandates. In 2012 the Financial Times published a letter from a conglomerate of mostly British bookmaker operators, complaining against the Belgian government’s treatment of bwin CEO Norbert Teufelberger, demanding the EU enforce its own treaty and insisting on an end to what they saw as “intimidation” via the blacklist. However, as previously mentioned, bwin now have a license to operate in Belgium, so the momentum seems to have vanished from the campaign for now.
Belgians have a long history of enjoying horseracing, especially trotting or harness racing. The two main horseracing stadiums, or hippodromes, are located in Mons-Ghlin and Waregem.
Football is also hugely popular, thanks to a recent resurgence in their national team's fortunes. They are now expected to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, although pulling out a win would still be seriously unexpected. Cycling is also a very popular sports betting activity, with a number of races taking place in the country. Belgian cyclists have won the Tour de France 18 times, placing them second only to France itself.
With Belgium’s decisive win against Bet-at-home, the country sent a strong message to those companies applying pressure to the EU to take action regarding the ISP blacklist. While it is not freely open, the Belgian model is certainly not as restrictive or wholly state-controlled as other European countries, so they're still protected by the age old 'but they're worse than I am' defence. Unless the EU challenges the Belgian government’s stance, the country looks as if it will continue its long and prosperous gambling history with exclusively Belgian sites.
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