The birthplace of democracy and the Olympic Games, Greece has been plagued with financial problems during the economic downturn of recent years. Now having received two bailouts from the EU, the Greek government has been making major changes to the way online gambling is regulated in the country.
When online casinos took off around the turn of the millennium, the Greek government was very much against it, and in 2002 passed a law banning all forms of electronic gaming. However, Law 3037/2002 failed to make a distinction between online gambling, land-based gambling machines and online video games, meaning that even playing games on consoles such as Playstation or Xbox was banned from internet cafes.
The laws were later relaxed by the government, with the 2011 Gambling Act making land-based slot machines and online gambling legal in an attempt to raise money through betting licences and taxes. This Act saw the government grant 24 interim licences to gambling operators, including William Hill and Betfair, and made provisions for a permanent licensing system to be set up.
However, in 2012 the Greek Ministry of Finance started drawing up proposals that would essentially monopolise the country’s online gambling market in favour of the state-run operator OPAP, which already held a land-based monopoly of the country’s sports betting and lottery industries. In November 2012, the government warned the holders of previously granted interim licences to wind down their services. Many of these companies, dismayed by the lack of EU-compliant regulation in the country, left the Greek market, while others held out hope for a better resolution that never materialised.
Following widespread concerns over the legality of the Greek gambling industry, the CJEU ruled in January 2013 that OPAP’s monopoly was indeed unlawful. In March, the Greek government submitted proposed revisions to its gambling laws to the European Commission, prompting a three-month ‘standstill’ while the EU considered the proposals. Clive Hawkswood, chief executive of the Remote Gambling Association, said of the situation in Greece: “When the Greek government said it was going to license and regulate the domestic online gambling market we welcomed this as a positive step. However, instead of encouraging the development of a competitive and well-regulated market, the Greek government and Gaming Commission are blocking major European private operators from it.”
The Greek government retaliated by labelling online Random Number Games as “highly addictive”, arguing that they should not be readily available. However, given the fact that it also granted OPAP a licence to operate an additional 35,000 physical video lottery terminals, this reasoning seems somewhat hypocritical. The Greek government has now effectively granted OPAP a monopoly up until 2030.
While there has been uncertainty over Greek gambling laws in recent years, online poker is still very popular amongst Greek citizens. Many have continued to play through the transitional legal period involving interim licences, with sites such as Party Poker offering games in both English and Greek. However, it’s not just online that Greeks can play poker, with anyone concerned about the legality of online gaming able to play at one of the many land casinos located on the mainland and islands. Indeed, Poker Stars even runs the Greek Poker Cup, the first ever live poker tournament to take place on Greek soil.
Greece’s gamble on OPAP’s monopoly of the national gambling industry may not have had the desired effect, with the company reporting a 71% drop in profits in the first quarter of 2013. This was attributed to the new 30% tax on gross gaming revenue recently levied by the Greek government, although sales before the tax was introduced had also decreased by almost 20%. Revenue from fixed-odds sports betting was down by over 25%.
Given these bleak figures and the mounting pressure from Europe, the Greek government may be forced to consider alternatives to its state-driven OPAP monopoly. The decision was based on the hope that OPAP’s stock would eventually rise, allowing the government to make a profit on the 34% stake that it owns in the company.
Even if it were to reopen the online gambling market to foreign firms, many may choose not to return, having been stung by the large back taxes recently levied. Until then, Greek gamblers are still able to play online poker or dabble in sports betting in their native language via a number of sites located outside their country that continue to accept Greek customers, such as 888casino.