Friday August 5,2011 :  Controversial proposal passed despite EC opposition
 
Decisions taken in the Greek parliament Thursday that included far-reaching changes to the country's gambling laws could put the financially troubled nation on a collision path with the European Commission.
 
Steered by finance minister Evangelos Venizelos, the gambling provisions were part of an omnibus reform bill covering everything from online gambling to tourism changes.
 
Instead of taking the customary summer recess, Greek lawmakers have been working to pass bundles of legalization required by one bailout programme that provided Greece with Euro 110 billion last year and a second, agreed in July, giving it a further Euro 109 billion in stages, and conditional on structural reforms and reaching fiscal targets, monitored quarterly by the nation's international lenders.
 
The omnibus measure was passed by a simple voice vote after three days of debate.
 
Due to its wide-ranging nature, there has already been criticism from various sectors of the beleaguered Greek economy, but the online gambling provisions, which fly in the face of European Commission objections on protectionist and discriminatory concerns, appear likely to create EU problems and possibly infringement proceedings in the European Court of Justice.
 
The reaction of the EC will be watched by the industry with interest.
 
The omnibus bill brought together a slew of disparate reforms not included in an earlier medium-term budget plan.
 
Apart from changes to gambling laws, tourist development and cuts in public-sector bonuses, the legalization also includes a series of measures such as a tax amnesty, the merger and abolition of dozens of government agencies and select pensions reforms.
 
On the gambling changes, the new law allows for the legalization of slot machines and online gambling, with the goal of generating Euro 700 million from licence concessions and taxes.
 
The EC has voiced its concerns that some of its provisions on internet gambling do not comply with European Union laws, citing especially the limits on the number of new licensees and other restrictions on applicants from other EU countries, along with certain exclusive privileges to Greece's state-owned gambling monopoly, OPAP SA, which the government hopes to privatise as part of its debt relief obligations.
 
The British online gambling group Betfair has already complained to the EC, pointing out that the Greek proposals now voted in by parliament are protectionist and in stark contravention of EU law.
 
The next audit on Greece is about to start, with an EU and IMF team due to arrive in the country on August 22. Minister Venizelos told parliamentarians before the omnibus bill vote that the law had to be passed before the EU/IMF team arrived.
 
"We must do our work and be a model of execution," Venizelos told lawmakers.
 
It appears that the finance minister is pursuing his strategy of trying to enhance the value of OPAP before privatising it. Under the new measures, OPAP will receive an exclusive licence to operate all the 35,000 video lotto machines (VLTs) to be set up in the country as part of gaming liberalisation, operating 16,500 machines itself and sub-contracting the rest.