Belgian Liberalization Not without Sticking Points

1 June 2009
Although a good deal of attention has been focused on the controlled opening in France, similar liberalization in Belgium is also on the way.

However, the proposals for legalizing Internet betting in France's smaller but no less affluent neighbor have proven to be more controversial.

Betting in retail outlets has been legal since the 1990s and established operators like Ladbrokes and Stanleybet -- as well as Pari Mutuel Urbain, the French monopolist -- all have a foothold there.

Belgium's 1999 Gaming Act did not include online betting and gaming in the range of legal products, and over the last two years, the government has been studying new proposals for allowing operators to offer those services.

Back in October 2007 when the French held their first conference to discuss market liberalization, Etienne Marique, who is president of Belgium's Gaming Commission, was also present and cut a more combative figure than many on the podium.

In the last 12 months, Mr. Marique made clear that Belgium was likely to follow a similar timetable as France, meaning licenses for online gaming would be available at the end of 2009 or beginning of 2010. He has also shown support for a closed Virtual Private Network -- similar to that adopted by the AAMS and Sogei authorities in Italy -- in order to control operators more closely.

However, in March of this year, it became clear that the Belgians were also considering a more controversial route -- one that was certain to fall afoul of the European Union.

It was then that Secretary of State Carl Devlies, the man in charge of introducing gambling reform in the country, revealed he was considering allowing only existing casino and betting operators to apply for online licenses.

As in the case of all European countries seeking to amend their legislation, the Belgian proposals have to be sent for approval by the European Commission. There is now a “standstill period” until June 29.

The less controversial aspects of the proposals include site blocking (similar to that adopted by the Italians), a 21-or-over age-limit restriction and a requirement that servers be located in the country.

However, of interest to many operators is the suggestion that online casino games may also be regulated. If the proposals are approved, this would make Belgium the first country, of those adopting newly liberalized regimes, to allow games of chance online. France and Italy, recall, opted to allow only betting and card games.

The new proposals, in line with the recommendations put forward by the Senate last year, still need to be approved by the Council of State, Belgium's supreme administrative court.

But with other countries in the region opting for change, and tens of thousands of Belgians playing on offshore Web sites, it is only a matter of time before a new regulatory environment is in place in the country.

Mr. Wood is a veteran of the international betting and gaming industry, having worked in the past for companies like Ladbrokes and Victor Chandler. He is now an established consultant and researcher advising companies on market entry and business development projects in Europe.