The meeting last week between Greek Economy Minister Giorgos Alogoskoufis and the Internal Market Commissioner of the European Union Charlie McCreevy has been followed by the appointment this week of a new watchdog for games of chance, tasked with monitoring all [state monopoly] OPAP games together with casinos, horse racing, and lotteries, reports the Athen newspaper Ekathimerini.
The new appointee to head National Regulating Commission for Games of Chance is Costas Zacharopoulos, a former CEO of the Tourism Development Company.
Ekathimerini opines that the move reflects the Greek government’s growing concern over the fate of its gambling monopoly OPAP. It has been issued with a final warning by McCreevy's European Commission and could face prosecution in the European Court of Justice unless there is a change of direction.
Stanleybet International, a British gambling company, is trying to start operations in Greece and welcomed the decision.
“Today’s decision is another blow to member states who do not wish to play their part,” said John Whittaker, the managing director. The European Gaming and Betting Association, or EGBA, seems to agree, saying that national gambling legalization that does not serve “any genuine consumer protection or public order interest has no future.”
Industry observers told Ekathimerini that sooner or later private gambling firms, which have been pushing hard for Greece to comply with EU principles, will enter the market.
OPAP secured an exclusive gambling licence from the government in 2001, and it runs through to 2020. The company had cash of Euros 384 million euros at the end of 2006, Bloomberg data shows. And its combative CEO Christos Hadjiemmanouil has vowed that the company “…will defend its rights in every appropriate way.”
However, this week Bloomberg reported that Hadjiemmanouil has hinted that OPAP may buy companies outside Greece if action is taken against its monopoly. Possible methods of expansion are buying a foreign company, offering new games in existing markets or providing gaming systems and support to other organisations, Hadjiemmanouil told the news service.
“I personally think there are, or there might be, opportunities out there in all these areas,” he said. "OPAP is a giant that has been very passive so far.”
Hadjiemmanouil criticised the European Commission's threat to sue Greece at the European Court of Justice. The company's shares have fallen 24 percent since the European Commission warnings started last year, cutting the company's market value to about Euro 6.3 billion.
"The Commission's reasoned opinion contains many mistakes,” the CEO told Bloomberg, adding that the [European Court of Justice] court will uphold Greece's right to regulate gaming. "A Wild-West casino society can not be the alternative to a monopolistic regime, even if the latter presents some legal imperfections.”